The psychology of dieting

FOLLOWING the food fest of Christmas, we pledge to adopt healthier eating habits and drop weight.

But by mid-January, too often, our firm resolve has melted.

Why this happens is complex. Some deviation from a healthier diet is due to personal resolve.

Here, the psychologists and behavioural scientists refer to a phenomenon called ‘allostatic load’ or the collective psychological stresses on an individual.

As allostatic load increases, we become more likely to revert to ‘self-reward’ behaviours that soothe or attenuate the harshness of the immediate psychological environment.

So, even though we may find it easy to initiate and maintain healthy dietary behaviours when the pressure’s off, in early January, as the cumulative stressors of work, family life, financial constraint and fatigue ratchet up by the middle of the month, the comfort-eating and high alcohol consumption commonly used as coping methods come to the fore.

The other obvious change by mid-January is a collective slump in our enthusiasm for healthy eating. While dietary change is a challenge for most people, it’s much easier to stick with the plan when people around us are struggling with the same challenges. Unfortunately, however, the converse is also true.

As the trickle of people falling off the wagon grows to a torrent by mid-January, the culture of health that carried us along in early January begins to lose its momentum.

Because this communal energy is often a powerful ‘enabler’ in mobilising our healthier dietary behaviours, its dissipation frequently spells disaster for less determined converts.

Aside from declining personal resolve and social support, however, two other factors can torpedo our best intentions at this time of year.

1. Most people view healthy eating as difficult to accomplish — the joyless austerity, sacrifice and self-denial that it implies are in stark contrast to the exuberant dietary hedonism that comes all too easy to us in late December.

2. Often, our motivation to eat more healthily is shaped by others’ expectations of how we should look or behave, or we conform to the behaviour of others who are making similar dietary changes at that time.

So what can we do to stick with the healthy changes we’ve made?

Healthy food can be delicious. Those who make an effort to learn healthy, convenient and tasty recipes that meet their dietary objectives are more likely to maintain their positive changes in the long-term.

Another useful strategy is to really think about why you’re making positive changes to your diet.

While extrinsic sources of motivation can be a useful support, people who are intrinsically motivated — changing their diet to meet their own, deeply personal objectives — are most likely to succeed.

Such focused inner resolve and determination allow us to persevere even when others around us fall by the wayside.

Similarly, it can be hugely beneficial to analyse the occasions when we break from our planned healthy diet.

This approach is referred to as mindfulness. It allows us to clearly identify the emotional triggers (e.g. stress, boredom, loneliness) that cause us to eat poorly.

And once we understand these emotional cues, it’s much easier for us to avoid them, or to develop rational, healthier behavioural responses to them in the future.

* Dr Daniel McCartney is a lecturer in human nutrition and dietetics at DIT.

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