How Do You Regulate What You Eat?

By: Sarah Schmermund

With obesity on the rise and pencil-thin models on our television sets, it’s not surprising that people are a little preoccupied with considerations of their weight and eating behaviors. ?And while some people succeed at maintaining their weight and eating habits, many others fail to do so over the long term. ?Statistically, at any given time, 1 in 4 Americans report being on some sort of diet; 35% of “normal” dieters will progress to pathological dieting; and?95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight within 5 years. ?The business of weight loss is a $68.7 billion industry, with the average diet costing about 50% more than what the average American spends on food.

Individuals’ inability to properly regulate their eating habits and weight poses a significant risk factor for the development of any number of health problems that may otherwise be preventable, like diabetes, hypertension, heart diseases, and gastrointestinal problems. ?Because the difficulties associated with weight gain are so substantial, scientists have paid particular attention to determining the ways to best help individuals manage their weight. ?In an effort to help answer this call, some health psychology researchers have recently considered the important question of why people differ in their ability to control their weight and eating behaviors.

Specifically, they looked at the cognitive processes contributing to successful versus unsuccessful weight control. ?The researchers first identified two distinct motives underlying women’s self-regulation of eating behaviors: self-determined and non-self-determined. ?People utilizing self-determined regulation tend to assume greater responsibility, extend greater effort, and remain task-oriented despite obstacles because they internalize and integrate the values of the relevant behaviors with their sense of self (“Eating healthy is congruent with other important aspects of my life.” “It is a way to ensure long-term health benefits.”). ?Non-self-determined regulation, then, is based on external motivators and is characterized by less effort, poorer performance, and diminished persistence over time (“I don’t want to be ashamed of how I look.” “It is expected of me.”).

Now, you don’t have to know much about psychology or dieting to guess which motive is associated with successful eating behavior and weight maintenance. ?Indeed, women utilizing self-determined regulation reported healthier eating behaviors, higher self-esteem, and greater life satisfaction, while non-self-determined regulation was correlated with the converse, including more disordered eating behaviors. ?What you may not have anticipated is the underlying constructs accompanying these two distinct motives: Women with a self-determined regulatory style expressed a preoccupation with the quality of the foods they ate while those with a non-self-determined style reported more concern for the quantity of food they consumed.

While further research is required, these findings offer significant implications for the future direction of health education and weight loss and maintenance programs. ?Is our preoccupation with how much we are eating contributing to our inability to maintain a healthy weight? ?Will teaching people to place greater value on the quality of their food help them regulate their eating behaviors over the long term? ?Or, will helping people integrate the values and behaviors of healthy lifestyles into their sense of selves result in a greater consideration of the quality of their food?

Statistics provided by National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc.

Pelletier, L.G., Dion, S.C., Slovinec-D’Angelo, M., & Reid, R. (2004). Why do you regulate what you eat? Relationships between forms of regulation, eating behaviors, sustained dietary behavior change, and psychological adjustment. Motivation and Emotion, 28(3), 245-277.