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The allure of forbidden food: a goal conflict perspective on dieting

By E.K. Papies


Body weight is an issue of growing concern in Western societies, and dieting is an increasingly popular means of weight loss and weight control. However, most dieters are not able to maintain their weight loss in the long term, and people with a chronic dieting goal (i.e., restrained eaters) tend to respond with food cravings and overeating when confronted with attractive food cues. The present dissertation introduces a novel approach to such failures of self-regulation by proposing that restrained eaters’ problem might lie in their sensitivity to the hedonic aspects of food and the resulting inhibition of their dieting goal. A goal conflict model is presented that integrates recent findings on hedonic sensitivity in eating regulation with social-psychological research on nonconscious goal pursuit. Restrained eaters are suggested to hold two conflicting goals with regard to eating: the goal of enjoying good food, and the goal of weight control. The perception of attractive food cues in the environment triggers hedonic thoughts about the pleasures of food, which in turn leads to the inhibition of the mental representation of the conflicting dieting goal. Subsequent cognition and behavior will then be dominated by a hedonic orientation towards food, rather than by the dieting goal. The present dissertation presents empirical studies showing that restrained eaters, but not unrestrained eaters, spontaneously activate hedonic thoughts about food when they are confronted with attractive food cues. Once triggered, this hedonic orientation towards food influences restrained eaters’ cognitive processes by directing their visual attention towards preferred food items. However, it was also found that this attentional bias for attractive food does not occur when restrained eaters are subtly reminded of their dieting goal. This provides further evidence for the conflicting relationship between a hedonic orientation towards food and the dieting goal. While restrained eaters have in general been found to be rather unsuccessful dieters, the present dissertation also presents empirical findings suggesting that successful restrained eaters exist, too. Whereas unsuccessful restrained eaters inhibit the mental representation of the dieting goal upon the perception of an attractive food cue, successful restrained eaters activate their dieting goal in response to food cues. This differential response to tempting food is also reflected in restrained eaters’ behavior. Whereas for unsuccessful restrained eaters, there is no association between dieting intentions and actual dieting behavior, successful restrained eaters were found to translate their intentions into behavior much more consistently. This might be due to the fact that only for successful restrained eaters, the dieting goal is cognitively accessible in tempting situations to guide their behavior with regard to attractive food. By examining restrained eaters’ failure of self-regulation from a social-cognitive perspective, the present work provides new insights into the processes that translate the perception of environmental food cues into eating and dieting behavior. The goal conflict model examined here can accommodate earlier research findings in the area of eating behavior, but it is also relevant for understanding attempts at resisting temptations more generally

Topics: Psychologie, dieting, restrained eating, self-regulation, non-conscious goal pursuit, temptation, attentional bias, hedonic, social cognition
Publisher: Utrecht University
Year: 2008
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