New diets often begin in one of two ways.
One way is what we’ll call the “New Year’s Resolution Diet.” Perhaps an individual had been aware of their goal to lose weight for a long time, but had never found the right time to make that first step. They then decide that starting the first day of the year – or any special, memorable day – they’ll turn things around and implement a new diet.
Let’s call the other way the “Documentary Diet.” Maybe an individual saw one of the many inspiring documentaries about promising new diets, or they read a book about a miracle weight loss solution, or were otherwise inspired by some discrete event. Using this as motivation, they respond to what they perceive to be a clarion call for a dietary overhaul, and begin immediately implementing new eating habits.
For many of us, we’re intimately familiar with New Year’s Resolution Diets and Documentary Diets. Perhaps we’ve tried one or the other, or even both at once! If not, at the very least a family member or friend has considered beginning a diet using one of these two strategies.
However, there’s a problem hidden inside both of these dieting strategies.
Of course there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making resolutions to eat healthier or being inspired to change your diet. And anything at all that provides motivation to eat healthy is a good thing, and should be encouraged.
Nonetheless, the problem with New Year’s Resolution Diets and Documentary Diets is that they generally don’t last. And new research has demonstrated one possible reason why.
Approach & Avoidance in Dieting
New research may have identified one reason why diets generally don’t last. In 2016, Dr. Meredith David, assistant professor of marketing at Baylor University, published a study in the journal Psychology & Marketing entitled “Saying ‘No’ to Cake or ‘Yes’ to Kale: Approach and Avoidance Strategies in Pursuit of Health Goals.”
The dominant idea expressed in the title of the research study is the difference between approach strategies and avoidance strategies. Approach strategies indicate the addition of some new positive health behavior, such as to eat more kale. Avoidance strategies indicate the subtraction of some existing negative health behavior, such as to eat less cake.
Any successful diet will undoubtedly (and unavoidably) contain elements of both strategies. To continue with the simple example given in the title of the article, if an individual were to eat more kale during a meal, they would (hopefully!) have less appetite for cake after the meal. Thus the approach strategy would supplement the avoidance strategy. The opposite relationship would also be possible, where keeping oneself from certain foods produces the appetite that leads one towards a better food, etc.
High and Low Self Control
The purpose of the research was to examine how individuals with high and low self-control differed on their implementation of these approach and avoidance behaviors in setting and attaining health goals.
Collecting data from a total of 542 research participants over a total of three studies, Dr. Meredith and her colleagues demonstrated several interesting relationships between self-control and dieting strategy.
It turned out that the individuals who measured higher in self-control were actually less likely to utilize avoidance strategies when implementing a new diet. The participants who scored more highly on self-control wrote down fewer dieting rules that involved food restrictions, and when they did incorporate food restrictions, the restricted foods were always foods that could reasonably be avoided.
By contrast, individuals scoring low in self-control were more likely to report unreasonable avoidance rules, intending to keep themselves from their favorite foods as part of their dietary plans. They were also more likely to use approach strategies to incorporate foods that they didn’t like, such as Brussels sprouts, whereas individuals high in self-control tried to incorporate healthy foods they enjoyed, such as strawberries.
In summary, the research study supported the idea that individuals high in self-control tried to avoid foods they could feasibly avoid, and to add into their diet only those new healthy foods that they enjoyed. Meanwhile, low self-control individuals were more likely to try and avoid their favorite foods while adding on healthy foods they did not like.
Small Practical Goals
Think back to the two dieting strategies mentioned above: the “New Year’s Resolution Diet” and the “Documentary Diet.” What do they both have in common?
Both diets incorporate immediate, broad, sweeping change. In the case of the New Year’s Resolution Diet, the change is planned in advance, ready to be implemented on the first day of the year or another, comparably special date. For the Documentary Diet, the diet has to begin today! With so much immediate motivation to change eating habits, there’s no time to lose.
However, in both models, there is a very sharp demarcation between the individual’s dietary and health habits before the change, and the new habits that happened after the change.
This requires an immense amount of self-control, as habits are not easily broken. But as the research above illustrated, strong and effective self-control is less about having the brute will power to abide by arduous rules, and more about having the sensitivity and self-awareness to set yourself realistic goals.
Consider the following quote from The Art of War: “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
To launch headlong a New Year’s Resolution Diet or a Documentary Diet with big plans and overly ambitious goals is to put yourself right on the battle line, without knowing for sure whether you’ll have the strength to ultimately win the war against those tantalizing snacks and cravings. Too often these leads to giving up the diet prematurely.
On the other hand, to implement manageable, attainable goals is to win the war first, and then march off to the kitchen to implement those practices that you already believe. These are the often kinds of diets that stick. While they may not be flashy or sensational, they can lead to steady, incremental progress.
In conclusion, the next time you begin a diet, even if it is for a New Year’s resolution or in response to an inspiring documentary, utilize the research above on the psychology of dietary motivation to set yourself up for success.
After all, once you settle into a consistent set of healthful dietary practices that works for your situation, you’ll no longer need to start any new diets!
-Oakville Wellness Team
David, M. E., & Haws, K. L. (2016). Saying “No” to Cake or “Yes” to Kale: Approach and Avoidance Strategies in Pursuit of Health Goals. Psychology & Marketing, 33(8), 588-594.