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Psychology behind Dieting

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Psychology behind Dieting

Almost two-thirds of UK adults are on a diet most of the time, making it an essential part of our behaviour for psychologists to study. Recent data has shown that almost 28% of adults in the UK are obese, and the next 36% are overweight.

Dieting comes in many forms; some involve cutting out particular food groups such as dairy or sugary foods, and some include controlling caloric intake to create a deficit. Certain cognitive patterns cause a lot of dieting behaviour; by studying dieting psychologically, we can see why this may or may not work for different individuals.

Psychology behind Dieting StudySmarterDieting, Flaticon

The Definition of Diet

As we mentioned above, a diet can come in many forms. The psychological effects of dieting can impact various aspects of a person's life. With the recent surges in social media trends and the misinformation that can easily be spread, we must define what a diet is to ensure we understand the processes involved.

Dieting is where a person intentionally restricts their food intake to achieve a goal such as weight loss or improved health.

Explanations for the Success and Failure of Dieting Psychology

Multiple models explore the success and failure rates of dieting within psychology. Many people worldwide may seek to lose weight at some point in their lives, and whilst many may be successful in their endeavours, others seemingly fail without obvious explanations.

The following models explore this phenomenon:

  • The spiral model
  • Ironic process theory
  • Locus of control effects
  • Hedonic theory

Let's explore and evaluate each of these models' explanations of dieting success and failure.

The Spiral Model

Polivy and Heatherton (1992) suggest dieting behaviour occurs due to a chain of linked events, specifically referencing chronic dieting and eating disorders.

The spiral model indicates that those who compare themselves to an ideal self exhibit levels of body dissatisfaction, which encourages those with body dissatisfaction to diet to achieve this ideal physique. Success in weight loss results at the end of the spiral process; however, most diets fail to produce desired results, where issues begin to erupt.

This behaviour tends to start in adolescence when individuals first begin experiencing negative thoughts about their bodies, leading to insecurity.

Insecurity leads to their first attempt at a restrictive diet, which may be ill-informed.

This first diet often produces some small tangible results, making the dieter feel this restriction is an effective way to control their weight. Lasting weight loss due to restrictive dieting is rare. Therefore when the individual regains the weight, as most dieters do, they will feel this is a personal failure.

The dieter is highly likely to ‘try again’, resuming their diet usually with stricter rules and eating even less. This increases frustration, dissatisfaction, distress, and physiological factors involved in increased food consumption, such as the hunger hormone, ghrelin. Metabolic efficiency is affected when diet patterns are restricted.

The individual is much more susceptible to disinhibited eating behaviours.

People then enter a ‘downward spiral’ by losing control of their eating behaviour when they cannot maintain calorie deficits. They then act impulsively, often eating a considerable amount of high-calorie food (binge eating) linked to weight gain.

Overall, Polivy and Heatherton (1992) conclude that dieting behaviours create a ‘downward spiral’ in which it becomes harder and harder to lose weight despite the diet becoming ‘stricter’. The downward spiral creates lower self-esteem, which prompts further dieting, resulting in stricter parameters that are harder to adhere to, resulting in failure, bingeing, and the cycle repeats with more detrimental effects each time.

Psychology behind Dieting a body of a women with measuring tape around StudySmarterWeight loss, Flaticon

Evaluation of the spiral model

A strength of the spiral model is that it has useful applications.

For example, by instilling better self-esteem in adolescence, we can prevent young people from beginning the downward spiral of restrictive dieting.

Also, by educating young people on how unlikely restrictive dieting is to yield any long-term results, we can help them avoid long-term negative consequences of dieting, such as weaker bones, higher susceptibility to disinhibition, and low self-esteem can sometimes lead to depression.

A criticism of the spiral model is that it does not address the issues that lead to low self-esteem, which starts this spiral in the first place.

  • Yoger et al. (1988) found that dieters who give up their restrictive diets can often turn to substance abuse as they have not addressed the self-esteem issues that lead them to diet in the first place. This means further research is needed to identify the cause and prevent these negative outcomes.

Ironic Processes Theory

Another explanation for the success or failure of dieting is Daniel Wegner’s theory of ironic processes. The theory aims to explain the phenomenon in which people on a diet tend to think about food much more than those who aren’t restricting their food intake.

  1. In one of Wegner’s experiments into this theory, he asked some of his participants to not think of a white bear.

    Interestingly, it’s hard for the human brain to imagine the ‘negative’ of something, which is sort of what this principle relies on. When someone asks you not to imagine a giraffe, it’s impossible, as you can’t not imagine something when given the prompt.

    He found almost all of these participants thought of a white bear, even more than those who had been specifically asked to think of one. For people on diets, the same effect may occur when trying not to think about the foods they’re restricting, they would be much more likely to think about those foods.

Constantly thinking about ‘forbidden’ foods makes the individuals more susceptible to disinhibited eating, which causes them to consume more calories and gain more weight.

Psychology behind Dieting Dessert Cake StudySmarterDessert, Flaticon

Evaluation of the ironic processes theory

Adriaanse et al. (2011) supported the ironic processes theory.

  • In the study, a group of female students with the goal of reducing their intake of chocolate and crisps were given diet intentions in a negative form, for example, ‘When I am sad, I will not eat chocolate’. These negative statements were associated with higher amounts of ‘forbidden’ foods consumed.

Although the ironic processes theory is well supported, it is limited in its ability to explain the successes and failures of dieting, as most of the research evidence is conducted in ‘snapshot’ experimental studies. We do not know the effect that the ironic processes effect has on long term dieting results. Wegner himself even states that the impact of ironic processes on overall diet success is minimal.

Locus of Control

A term first coined by Julian Rotter in 1954, a person’s locus of control is how much or how little control they believe they have over their life. There are two types of locus of control, known as ‘internal’ and ‘external’.

Internal locus of control is when an individual believes they are the ones in control of the trajectory of their life and what happens to them. (e.g., If I study, I will do well on my exam).

External locus of control is when an individual believes that external factors and other people control the trajectory of their life and what happens to them (e.g. I’ll only do well in my exam if the questions are fair).

Locus of control can explain how people succeed or fail in their diets. People with an internal locus of control may be more likely to succeed in their efforts to diet than those with an external locus of control, as they have more perceived control over themselves and are less likely to experience disinhibition.

Evaluation for the locus of control

The locus of control explanation is limited by how it is studied. Most studies investigating this theory use self-report questionnaires to determine the participant’s locus of control. This can lack validity as self-report methods are often subject to demand characteristics and social desirability bias.

Hedonic Theory

According to Stroebe, weight regulation relies on the need for homeostasis in the body and the feedback the body provides to maintain it. Decreased sensitivity to this feedback often leads to an inability to regulate weight, which typically leads to problems with being overweight or obese (feelings of hunger and satiety).

When the environment is food rich, and the need to eat is driven by pleasure rather than the need to survive and consume calories, hedonic eating is at odds with the goal of homeostasis.

The hedonic theory states those who struggle with their weight and maintaining diets/weight are sensitive to hedonic eating behaviours. The desire to eat is difficult to resist, and those who restrict their eating and are sensitive to the pleasures of eating are more likely to focus on the pleasures of eating than those who do not restrict their eating.

They focus more on the pleasure of eating in the absence of physical hunger.

Evaluation of hedonic theory

Overall, the hedonic theory explains why those who diet tend to focus more so on the pleasures of food. The salivary activity in restrained eaters exemplified this compared to non-restrained eaters in Brunstrom et al. (2004). Here, participants’ saliva levels were measured before and after exposure to a hot pizza (desirable food) before and after they had lunch. The smell of this food prelunch produced a higher salivation response in restrained eaters than non-restrained eaters.

Psychological Effects of Dieting

Psychological effects of dieting differ depending on the success or failure of said diet. Successful diets may result in feelings of satisfaction, increased self-esteem and confidence, and improvements overall in both mood and general health. Physiologically, a person who has lost weight to become a healthy weight should generally be in better health. There is not as much pressure on the heart or other organs (especially if surrounded by visceral fat). There is also a reduced risk of developing diabetes (Lasikiewicz et al. 2014).

However, successful diets can also cause negative psychological effects, and studiously counting calories can impact a person's eating habits.

For instance, Levinson et al. (2017) found that 73% of those with eating disorders perceived a calorie counting app to contribute to their symptoms, and 75% overall stated they used calorie counting apps.

Still, overall the positive psychological effects of dieting are significant, with reported positive effects on emotional eating, improvements in body image, and positive effects on feelings of depression, among other benefits (Bryan & Tiggemann, 2001)


Psychology behind Dieting - Key takeaways

  • Almost two-thirds of UK adults are on some diet most of the time, making it an important part of our behaviour for psychologists to study.
  • A diet is where a person intentionally restricts their food intake to achieve a goal such as weight loss or improved health.
  • Polivy and Heatherton suggest that dieting behaviour occurs due to a chain of linked events throughout an individual’s life. This behaviour tends to start in adolescence. They want to achieve an ideal physique, and to do this, they diet to lose weight. If they succeed, the process ends, but if not, the spiral begins; they do not achieve their ideal body, they have lowered self-esteem, so they go on stricter diets. They fail again, and so on, resulting in severe issues with body dissatisfaction.
  • Another explanation for the success or failure of dieting is Daniel Wegner’s theory of ironic processes. This theory aims to explain the phenomenon in which people on a diet tend to think about food much more than those who aren’t restricting their food intake.
  • Locus of control can explain how people succeed or fail in their diets. People with an internal locus of control may be more likely to succeed in their efforts to diet than those with an external locus of control, as they have more perceived control over themselves and are less likely to experience disinhibition.
  • The hedonic theory concerns the pleasure of eating food rather than the need. According to Stroebe, weight regulation relies on the need for homeostasis within the body, and the feedback the body provides to maintain this. Those who restrain their diets who are sensitive to the pleasures of food are more likely to focus on the pleasures of food when doing so, compared to those who do not restrain their eating.

Frequently Asked Questions about Psychology behind Dieting

Gender differences in weight loss may be due to societal pressures, media sources, unrealistic beauty standards, and self-esteem/health issues. 

Dieting depends on the person. A diet that works for one individual is not always guaranteed to work on another. Overall, however, a calorie deficit will usually (if not always) result in weight loss. 

Theories surrounding failure are ironic processing theory, locus of control issues, and hedonic theory.

Dieting depends on the person. A diet that works for one individual is not always guaranteed to work on another. Overall, however, a calorie deficit will usually (if not always) result in weight loss. 


One is that according to the Ironic Processes theory, trying not to think about 'forbidden foods' makes you more likely to constantly think about them.

Joining a diet club can offer various benefits and drawbacks. Whilst it provides support for those wanting to lose weight in a group environment, it can also encourage competition and the need to compare results. This can affect self-esteem. 

'Yoyo dieting', where a person continually fails and restarts a diet, can have negative effects on mental health as it can lead to disinhibition and distress. It can also affect metabolic efficiency. 

Final Psychology behind Dieting Quiz

Question

What is dieting?

Show answer

Answer

Dieting is where a person intentionally restricts their food intake to achieve a goal such as weight loss or improved health. 

Show question

Question

What are the various types of diets people can go on?

Show answer

Answer

They can, for example:

  • Go on a calorie deficit diet
  • Restrict their intake of dairy, sugar, or carbohydrates.

Show question

Question

Who suggested the spiral model?

Show answer

Answer

Polivy and Heatherton (1992)

Show question

Question

What is the spiral model in dieting?

Show answer

Answer

The spiral model indicates that those who compare themselves to an ideal self exhibit levels of body dissatisfaction, which encourages those with body dissatisfaction to diet to achieve this ideal physique. Success in weight loss results at the end of the spiral process; however, most diets fail to produce desired results, where issues begin to erupt.

Show question

Question

The spiral model theory suggests dieting and low self-esteem is a result of _____ with the body. 

Show answer

Answer

Dissatisfaction

Show question

Question

What is the strength of the spiral model theory?

Show answer

Answer

A strength of the spiral model is that it has useful applications. For example, by instilling better self-esteem in adolescence, we can prevent young people from beginning the downward spiral of restrictive dieting.  

Show question

Question

What is a criticism of the spiral model theory?

Show answer

Answer

A criticism of the spiral model is that it does not address the issues that lead to low self-esteem, which starts this spiral in the first place.  

Show question

Question

What is the ironic processes theory?

Show answer

Answer

Ironic processes theory is where people on a diet tend to think about food much more than those who aren’t restricting their food intake.  

Show question

Question

Who introduced the ironic processes theory?

Show answer

Answer

Daniel Wegner 

Show question

Question

In one experiment, Wegner asked participants to not think of a ____ _____.

Show answer

Answer

White bear

Show question

Question

What did Wegner find when he asked participants not to think of a white bear?

Show answer

Answer

He found almost all of these participants thought of a white bear, even more than those who had been specifically asked to think of one. For people on diets, the same effect may occur when trying not to think about the foods they’re restricting, they would be much more likely to think about those foods.

Show question

Question

What did Adriaanse et al. (2011) find in their study when evaluating the ironic process effect?

Show answer

Answer

In the study, a group of female students with the goal of reducing their intake of chocolate and crisps were given diet intentions in a negative form, for example, ‘When I am sad, I will not eat chocolate’. These negative statements were associated with higher amounts of ‘forbidden’ foods consumed.

Show question

Question

What is a locus of control, and how does this affect dieting?

Show answer

Answer

A term first coined by Julian Rotter in 1954, a person’s locus of control is how much or how little control they believe they have over their life. There are two types of locus of control, known as ‘internal’ and ‘external’. People with an internal locus of control may be more likely to succeed in their efforts to diet than those with an external locus of control, as they have more perceived control over themselves and are less likely to experience disinhibition.

Show question

Question

What is hedonic theory in dieting?

Show answer

Answer

The hedonic theory states those who struggle with their weight and maintaining diets/weight are sensitive to hedonic eating behaviours. The desire to eat is difficult to resist, and those who restrict their eating and are sensitive to the pleasures of eating are more likely to focus on the pleasures of eating than those who do not restrict their eating.

Show question

Question

What did Brunstrom et al. (2011) find in their study focused on hedonic eating?

Show answer

Answer

Here, participants’ saliva levels were measured before and after exposure to a hot pizza (desirable food) before and after they had lunch. The smell of this food prelunch produced a higher salivation response in restrained eaters than non-restrained eaters.

Show question

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