People who self-identify as dieters are an unhappy bunch on the whole. They usually score high on measures of depression and anxiety and low on self-esteem. A new study provides a clue as to why. Jessie de Witt Huberts and her colleagues tested three groups of female students and found the “restrained eaters” (they reported dieting more often and being conscious of their food intake) ate just as much as other students. They also experienced a lot more guilt, especially in relation to eating. In essence, these are people who seem to constantly set themselves up for failure, while also robbing themselves of the pleasures of eating. “Despite their good intentions,” the researchers said, “restraint eaters seem to gain nothing and lose twice.”
The research took place across three studies, all following a similar procedure. Dozens of female undergrads were invited to a lab to take part in what they thought was a food-tasting session for a supermarket chain. They were left alone for ten minutes to sample high and low calorie food, like chips and apple slices. Then they were asked questions about their emotions, including their guilt, and about their attitudes towards food, including how much they diet and how often they worry about what they’re eating.
Checking the food afterwards, the researchers found that the restrained eaters – those who dieted often and who fretted about their consumption – had eaten just as much as the other participants, including just as much high-calorie food. But crucially, they felt more guilty afterwards, especially in relation to their recent indulgence.
This study doesn’t prove that being a restrained eater causes increased guilt. It’s possible there’s one or more other factors that cause a person to watch what they eat and to experience more guilt. One could also argue that the set-up was a little unfair on the restrained eaters – they’d been asked to taste the food, after all; perhaps they do exert more control over their intake in everyday life.
Nonetheless, the results are certainly intriguing, and help explain why restrained eaters tend to experience psychological problems and why they tend to develop problematic eating habits. In effect, it appears these people are locked into a vicious circle. Guilt after over-eating likely encourages them to renew their promises to eat less. And when they fail again to reduce their eating, yet more guilt ensues, this time more intense than before. Given that “45 per cent of young girls currently report dieting”, the researchers said it’s imperative that we learn more about why so-called restrained eaters experience such negative outcomes.
de Witt Huberts, J., Evers, C., and de Ridder, D. (2012). Double trouble: restrained eaters do not eat less and feel worse. Psychology and Health, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2012.751106