February 15, 2013

Why 'black and white' thinking makes you eat more

Many dieters who lose a lot of body weight will be back where they started or even heavier. Some dieters, however, manage to keep off some or all the weight. In a study of Susan Byrne and colleagues, aimed to learn more about successful and failing dieters, the most powerful psychological predictor of weight regain was a dichotomous thinking style. This thinking style is also called 'black and white' or 'all or nothing' thinking. Dieters think they have to eat perfectly or do nothing at all.

Dose insensitivity

Not only dieters, but many consumers label foods as either 'good for health' or 'bad for health', without any options in between and regardless of the amount eaten. In a survey of Paul Rozin and colleagues, 40% of the respondents agreed with the statement 'Although there are some exceptions, most foods are either good or bad for health'. They call this tendency to believe that something in large amounts is also harmful in small amounts 'dose insensitivity'.

People overgeneralize even to the level of gaining weight from eating foods. In a study of Michael Oakes and Carole Slotterback, participants were presented with food and their caloric content. One of their fascinating findings? One bag of potato chips (152 calories) was judged to promote more weight gain than a large raisin bran muffin (460 calories).
Venco Zwart-witjes Liquorice - good or bad?
The advantage of this thinking style is that it makes life simple and reduces the number of choices you have to make. You chose a 'good food' and you can eat how much you want, without worrying about gaining weight. Perhaps this tendency is not surprising as consumers are bombarded with advertising and claims focusing on benefits of consuming one food or meal. Perhaps even some over simplistic nutrition education campaigns can partly be blamed ('beware of fat').

This 'black and white' mind-set can make you overeat. No matter how large the portion size, you are likely to underestimate your calories and as a result overindulge. Dieters thinking 'black and white' also talk negative to themselves. Once they break a diet rule, pessimistic thoughts come up, such as: 'Now I have blown it; I ate three chocolates, I might as well finish the entire box' or 'this is not a dieting day anymore...'.  Consequently, they do not stop eating and ignore physical feelings of fullness ('what the hell effect').

Do you agree with the statement: 'I don't want to give up the foods I like'?

I do, and I am not alone in this. In a survey of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 82% of the respondents agreed with this statement. It is hard to abandon foods from your life that you really love. Tell yourself 'you can't eat that!', and the more tempting it becomes. It may help to identify such thinking patterns and replace them with a more realistic view on eating. For example, enjoy a little snack, just don't go overboard.

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