Weight Loss

Dieting: Feelings Sometimes Mean More than Facts

Most people have tried to lose weight, but most people are still overweight or obese. And that may be due, researchers say, to the different factors involved in diet planning as opposed to diet behavior.

“There is clearly a disconnect if we have a majority of the population that has tried to lose weight and a majority of the population that is overweight,” says Marc Kiviniemi, a public health researcher at the University at Buffalo. “People are planning to diet and trying to diet, but that’s not translating into a successful weight loss effort.”

Dieting is a process that involves a plan to change eating behavior and behaving according to that plan. But the factors that guide diet planning differ from those that guide actual diet behavior, according to the results of Kiviniemi’s new study with Carolyn Brown-Kramer of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln published in the Journal of Health Psychology.

“The crux of the disconnect is the divide between thoughts and feelings. Planning is important, but feelings matter, and focusing on feelings and understanding their role can be a great benefit,” says Kiviniemi, associate professor of community health and health behavior in the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions.

The researchers said that plans to change behavior are a function of thoughts. But when it comes to actually eating, feelings guide behavior. “If you’re sitting back conceiving a plan you may think rationally about the benefits of eating healthier foods, Kivineimi said, “but when you’re in the moment, making a decision, engaging in a behavior, it’s the feelings associated with that behavior that may lead you to make different decisions from those you planned to make.”

The findings highlight the shortcomings of deprivation diets or diets based on food choices that ignore people’s preferences, according to a news release from the university.

“First of all, the deprivation experience is miserable. If you didn’t associate negative feelings with it to start, you will after a few days,” says Kiviniemi. “The other thing that’s important is the distinction between things that require effort and things that are automatic.Planning is an effort that demands mental energy, but feelings happen automatically. Deprivation or anything that demands a high degree of self-control is a cognitive process. If you put yourself in a position to use that energy every time you make a food choice that energy is only going to last so long.”

Kiviniemi says dieters should seriously consider enjoyment when framing and shaping a behavior change.

“In the dietary domain, eating more fruits and vegetables is fabulous advice. But if you have negative feelings about those food choices, they might not represent elements of a good plan,” says Kiviniemi. “It’s not just about eating healthy foods. It’s about eating the healthy foods you like the most.”


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