Successful Dieting in Tempting Environments: Mission Impossible?

One of the areas in which temptations often interfere with people’s self-control is the domain of eating and dieting behavior. In the present article, we review research on the psychological processes underlying the failures and successes of chronic dieters in resisting food temptations. A goal conflict model of eating as well as research testing this model is presented to understand the difficulties that dieters face in our Western food-rich environment. In addition, we discuss how we may boost self-control to prevent dieters from giving in to temptation.

Watch a movie or study for an exam? Sleep late or go to the gym? Take this chocolate or not? We often have to choose between things we want to do and things we think we ought to do. Although tempting alternatives offer immediate satisfaction, such as the pleasure of eating a piece of chocolate, they often challenge our striving for higher-order goals that offer long-term benefits (e.g., a slim figure). The ability to overcome our impulses and to resolve such conflicts in favor of the long-term goal is called self-control (e.g., Baumeister & Heatherton, 1996; Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). One of the areas in which temptations seem particularly likely to interfere with people’s self-control is the domain of eating and dieting behavior.

In most Western countries where overweight and obesity have been increasing dramatically, dieting has become a popular means of weight control (Kruger, Galuska, Serdula, & Jones, 2004). Efforts at controlling or reducing weight are recommendable as overweight and obesity are associated with serious health problems, such as increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and some cancers (Stroebe, 2008). Moreover, overweight and obese people are likely to experience bias, stigma, and discrimination (Puhl & Brownell, 2001) as well as increased body dissatisfaction (Schwartz & Brownell, 2004) and lower levels of self-esteem (Miller & Downey, 1999). Thus, dieting as a means of weight control may reduce the negative health, social, and psychological consequences of being overweight.

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