Our mindset plays a huge role in eating behavior and weight. If we don’t tune in to body hunger signals and make what we eat a conscious choice, today’s 24/7 availability of large portions of high-calorie food makes weight control very challenging for most of us. Yet when we impose on ourselves rigid rules about what and how much we can eat, benefits are often short-lived. Studies show that women, especially, tend to rebound, overeating on the “forbidden fruit” and gaining back more weight than they lost. For some, this can begin a pattern that leads down a disastrous road.
Everyday eating impulses, not special occasions, as biggest culprit
Two studies of weight gain and loss in middle-aged women provide examples of conclusions reached by a growing body of research on eating behavior and psychology. In both studies, unplanned overeating in response to various circumstances and the way in which people tried to control it were strongly linked to weight changes.
In one study, 25 to 35 percent of long-term weight gain and overweight was linked to these two factors. The biggest damage from overeating in response to high-calorie food was not the holidays and parties that often get the blame. The much larger culprit was overeating in everyday life.
Numerous studies show that the more accessible and visible food is, the more likely we are to eat it…regardless of whether or not we’re hungry. Sometimes we can change the visibility of foods that tempt us to overeat:
- Keep all serving bowls (or everything but vegetables) off the table.
- Store sweets in cabinets rather than sitting on counters or tables.
- Limit how wide a variety of high-calorie snack foods you bring home.
- Choose restaurants serving reasonable portions rather than all-you-can-eat-buffets.
Much of food’s widespread availability is not under our control, however. We need to break “automatic pilot” of buying a cookie each time we stop for coffee, grabbing a candy bar while in the grocery line or eating an extra slice of pizza because it’s there.
Restraint – how we try to control those eating urges — seems to have two different faces. It’s been linked with lower calorie consumption and lower weight, but also with weight gain and overweight. A study of overweight European women during and after a weight control program is among those that differentiate between two types of restraint:
- Rigid restraint involves strict rules and a downside that it may promote binge eating once a rule is broken. It was linked with greater short-term weight loss among the European women, but after two years was unrelated to weight.
- Flexible restraint, a less strict approach that includes occasional high-calorie choices in limited amounts without guilt, was one of the strongest predictors of weight loss at two years. Several other studies also link flexible restraint with long-term weight maintenance.
Fortunately, flexible restraint is a mindset you can learn. Women in the program that taught this skill increased flexible restraint scores, lost more weight and better maintained weight loss than those in a control group given general health tips.
In the study that followed women’s weight for 20 years, among women who scored highest for tendency to overeat in response to everyday life circumstances and to emotions, those who were also low in flexible restraint gained the most weight — an average of 48 pounds. Those with a mindset showing more flexible restraint gained less than half that amount.
How to foster flexible restraint
- Start by creating a baseline of healthy eating habits that meet nutritional needs without leaving you feeling deprived. Honor your body’s hunger signals with portions that make sense.
- Listen to your self-talk. Allow yourself to question those “always” and “never” rules and expectations.
- When you hear self-talk that is rigid or perfectionistic, answer back with a more flexible, positive re-statement of boundaries. That is the key to changing self-talk so that instead of working against you, it works for you.
Let’s talk: How do you try to walk the tight rope of flexible restraint?
The Center for Mindful Eating and the Intuitive Eating websites provide information about nonjudgmentally tuning in to internal and external eating signals, and developing attitudes free of depriving rules and unrealistic expectations.
1 Drapeau V et al. Do 6-y changes in eating behaviors predict changes in body weight? Results from the Québec Family Study. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, 2003.
2 Hays, NP and Roberts, SB. Aspects of Eating Behaviors “Disinhibition” and “Restraint” Are Related to Weight Gain and BMI in Women. Obesity (Silver Spring), 2008.
3 Wansink B, et al. The office candy dish: proximity’s influence on estimated and actual consumption. Int J Obes (Lond), 2006.
4 Teixeira, PJ et al. Mediators of Weight Loss and Weight Loss Maintenance in Middle-aged Women. Obesit, 2010. 18(4):725–735.