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On not blowing your diet after those long holiday weekends

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, professor of psychology | September 6, 2011

If you have ever been on a diet, you know how difficult it can be to restrain the impulse to eat, eat, eat. It almost seems like even beyond our normal tendency to eat, dieting — when we’re not careful– can lead you to lose it and, ironically, eat even more.

In this post, posted right before another holiday (Easter), I talked about why counting calories is a really good way to stick to a diet. To summarize, counting calories, at a cognitive level, does two important things: a) it constantly reminds you of your weight-loss goal; and b) it changes the mental representation of that no-so-great-for-you food from “yummy” to “caloric bomb for the diet.”

Following that post, an astute reader asked, “so, professor,how many chocolate eggs and bunnies did you consume?”

The answer was none… for about a week. I was feeling proud of my accomplishment, so I decided to reward myself with a little leftover treat from the holiday. The problem was that after that, I couldn’t stop– I kept eating and eating, and instead of a little treat, I ended up blowing my diet wide open. I fell off the bus, the road, and the hillside.

This experience reminded me of one of the most memorable research lectures I’ve ever heard. It was a talk at Columbia University by Todd Heatherton, a self-regulation researcher at Dartmouth. Dr. Heatherton described a study in which restrained and non-restrained eaters (essentially, dieters versus non-dieters) were brought into the lab to conduct a “taste test.” The details are a little fuzzy (the talk, I think, was in 1998) but from what I remember participants were asked to provide ratings of how good a particular ice cream was. The ice cream was rich and decadent, and the participants were asked to finish a good portion before providing their ratings.

After the experiment was over, the participants were brought into a different room, and were told to help themselves to some other treats–cookies, I think– that had purportedly been left over from another experiment. Dr. Heatherton showed a graph comparing the consumption of these “freebie” sweet treats among the dieters vs. non-dieters. The graph was absolutely striking– whereas the non-dieters helped themselves to a few of these treats after having eaten the rich ice cream, the dieters ended up helping themselves to several times the amount that the non-dieters did. As the audience sat silent, amazed and trying to understand why this difference occured, Dr. Heatherton said simply,

— We call this the “What The Hell” effect.

The audience roared in delight– with that one phrase, everyone understood the psychological mechanism underlying the sudden, unrestrained eating among the dieters (at that moment, I think, my commitment to research psychology was cemented). The dieters had blown their diet with the ice cream, and this then led them to lose self-regulation at a subsequent, unrelated opportunity. The “what the hell” effect has been recently replicated by Janet Polivy and her colleagues in a 2010 paper (that paper is summarized well here). A write-up of this study in The Economist concludes that this shows that diets don’t work– that is, dieiting makes you vulnerable to the What the Hell effect.

source: Wikimedia commons (Art Vandelay)

But this conclusion is premature. No matter which way you look at it, eating one or two cookies is still better than eating nine or ten– the amount of damage to your diet is proportional to the amount you eat. The reality is that dieting trip-ups, or the occasional treat, don’t have to lead to a What the Hell effect. And simply knowing about this effect gives us an important self-awareness tool for recognizing when we are at risk for blowing our diet.

So if you’ve managed to resist temptation this holiday weekend– good for you! And if you blew it, regroup and get back on your diet. It’s OK to reward yourself or to trip up a little bit. Just keep in mind that these moments make you vulnerable to outright falling off the diet bus, so make a plan to stay on the bus– for example, by dutifully entering even those indulgences into your calorie counter.

Cross-posted from Psychology Today; Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton; all rights reserved.


Comments to “On not blowing your diet after those long holiday weekends

  1. It needs to be a lifestyle thing to try to eat most of the time healthy, so when Easter or Christmas comes it’s OK to eat a lot since the normal diet will take over anyway after the holidays.

    Thordur Bergmann

  2. Personally I too support the theme of counting the calories while eating. I couldn’t control the appetite when the mouthwatering stuff was near to my eye. But I think instead of counting the calories, lets freely have some part of our favorites dishes to satisfy our hunger. By doing these kind of stuff, we not able to control our appetite but also we can have our favorite mouthwatering foods without any restrictions. This ultimate psychological feeling makes a person to reduce the weight in a restriction free method. This can be effective too to lose weight. Thanks for sharing these great stuff with us. This kind of articles helps us to know how self-restrictions are necessary for weight reduction.

  3. I have been writing also on this subject and found recently the same events as you say in this post.

    I think people unconsciously not only treat themself with, for instance, an ice-cream, but also unconsciously think: I’m allowed to eat as much as I want now, as a treat for myself. So they start eating very much.

    It’s the same as drinking no alcohol for a long time and then drink one as a treat. When you drunk one, you will drink faster a next one. The ‘what the hell’ effect.

    So I will all people suggest to never treat them with food, because that is what they are not allowed to. Treat yourself with something different, for instance a new television after one year on diet. Or once a month new clothes.


  4. All obese people want to get rid of all the weight that they have gained in the years in a few days and this is impossible. They listen to all the advice and follow all of ways up to them to achieve this. Some of these may be proper ways, and some may improper. Eventually, they lose some weight, then gain more weight.

  5. Very informative article Mr. Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton. I do agree that self-controlling is the best way for not gaining weight, we could also divide our full meal into small portions and eat only what we need. And as Mr. James said, we need to keep our snacks with fruits, vegetables and also nuts. Better than going for chips and fries.

  6. There are no excuses if one want to stick to a diet or not. You have to take the right mind set and sooner or later your new of thinking will give its positive result.

  7. At age 20 I weighed 100 kilos and now, at age 71, I weigh 70 kilos. No, it wasn’t easy and it took a very long time. I’m on a permanent diet and I regard food as my enemy trying to kill me.
    I used to total love ice cream and regarded a one pint block as a ‘standard serving.’ Now, when I even bother to eat a little, I can only think how the calories really were not worth it.
    (I hope my experience can help someone else.)

  8. Having a snack featuring fruits and vegetables before you leave can help you say no to temptation. That means that once you know what foods work best for your metabolism, not only will you be able to spend the holiday season alert and full, but you can also presents guests and fellow party-goers with delicious treats without them ever knowing that you’re sneaking in healthy foods under their noses. There’s plenty of soup, and fruit and vegetables,and you only follow it for one week in four, so it’s not too restrictive or challenging. The more you currently weight the more calories you will burn dancing.

  9. Good article Rodolfo. When it comes to self control, I live by the proverb ” The best way to resist temptation is, just to yield to it”. But as a result I am obese. I should start following what you have suggested. Thanks again for the wonderful article.

    Found this blog on child obesity — May be worth a read.

  10. Most of us know that the biggest benefits of eating healthy are that we will stay physically fit, feel better, and have fewer illnesses. We can lower our risk of illnesses like heart disease and diabetes as well. Another key benefit of eating healthy is being able to maintain a healthy weight. In this age of epidemic obesity, this is one of the simplest weight loss plans.

  11. Self-control is the real answer to not gaining weight. The will of a person is much stronger than his taste buds or any emotional discomfort or trauma he may be feeling.

  12. Have you got any tips for people working long hours when the only solution seems to be the boring sandwich. BTW very interesting articles on your site, keep up the good work.

  13. Haha I’ll have to remember that one – the “what the hell” effect.

    Personally instead of “counting calories”, I prefer to plan out what I’m going to eat beforehand. An entire week beforehand, if possible. This way I know what I’m going to eat for each meal, I’m less likely to overeat, and I also know how many calories I’m going to eat every day.

    My blog on the subject can be found here

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