What do movies, lipstick, and Tootsie Rolls have in common? They all thrive in difficult economic times. And that connection can teach us a lot about overeating.

In the 1930’s, in the midst of the Great Depression, the businesses of cosmetics titans Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein thrived while the economy crashed. After the attacks of 9/11, Estee Lauder chairman Leonard Lauder reported a similar increase in sales and dubbed this the “Lipstick Effect.” In March of 2009, during the global economic crisis, an article appeared in the New York Times, with the headline: “When Economy Sours, Tootsie Rolls Soothe Souls.” The article, which was number one on the Times list of most emailed, shows how the same effect can be seen today with candy.

The movie industry thrived during the 1930s as well. It provided a welcome escape from the reality of what was going on outside. Perhaps more importantly, it was an indulgence in entertainment, which most would consider to be a non-essential activity, but one that could still be affordable even in the most difficult times. Economists call all of these purchases “affordable luxuries” and explain that they are in greater demand as family budgets tighten.

This apparent consumer pattern of using responsible self-indulgence as a counterweight to economic restraint, especially the example of eating more candy, made me think about emotional eating. After all, this phenomenon is not really about economics or lipstick, it’s about human nature. We can experience stress during good economic times too. One way we can counter that stress is to balance it by self-indulgence.

But sometimes we don’t indulge responsibly. Perhaps this is proportionate to the degree of stress we experience, or possibly it’s because we can’t find a more appropriate way to act on the need to indulge reasonably. I believe that for many people this may be the point at which they are most vulnerable to emotional eating.  As I’ve been arguing on this blog, overindulgence in food may serve as a necessary counterweight to offset the experience of having your choices restricted by external factors, whether it’s a controlling boss or a lousy economy.

A new study in Psychological Science by Harvard psychologist Jennifer Lerner and colleagues shows that subjects in an experiment who were exposed to three-minute video clips that induced feelings of sadness were less likely to defer gratification than people who saw videos that were emotionally neutral. It’s not just any negative feelings that will have that effect; people who were exposed to clips that induced feelings of disgust were no more likely to make short-sighted choices than the control group that was exposed to neutral videos.

Why would feelings of sadness have that effect? I can think of a few possibilities, both of which lead me to the same conclusion. One is that induced feelings of sadness are associated with loss, which is an experience beyond our control. The experience of loss limits our freedom to continue enjoying the object of that loss while feelings of disgust have no such effect; disgust repels but it doesn’t limit.

The other possibility is that when exposed to feelings that generate sadness, people may tend to make more of an effort to restrain the display of those emotions than they would feelings of disgust. Either way, feelings of loss or restraint, both of which limit of the freedom to act independently or at least free of perceived pressure, are more likely to reduce the ability to delay gratification.

Ironically, perhaps the greatest cause of stress and deprivation that leads to overeating is dieting! Over the past 20 years, researchers have studied the effects of restraint on eating and have found that those who deprive themselves the most are also most prone to binge eating. It’s kind of like a dam bursting after artificially holding back what would otherwise have been a peacefully flowing stream.

That’s not a bad way to think about the downside of dieting. As most dieters know, reaching your “goal weight” is not even half the battle. It’s keeping the weight off. The feeling of deprivation that’s set up by dieting finds balance through indulgence in the same way that a tough economy increases the sale of lipstick: autonomy, like water, seeks its own level.

Have you ever heard of the Stylites? No, it’s not the name of an easy-listening R&B group from the Seventies, although good guess. Actually, stylites were religious ascetics who practiced self-denial in order to focus on spiritual development. The word “stylite” comes from the Greek stylos, meaning pillar, because they were the religious forerunners of modern-day pole-sitters. The original stylite was St. Simeon who lived in the fifth-century and sat on a pillar near Aleppo, Syria for 37 years. You might say he was the patient saint of pole-sitting.

David Blaine, the street magician and performance artist is a contemporary version of a stylite, who has performed many public feats of endurance, such as being enclosed in a coffin for a week, encased in a block of ice for almost three days, and in the tradition of St. Simeon, standing on a small platform on top of an eighty-foot high pillar in New York City for thirty-five hours.

In their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney interviewed Blaine to try to understand how (if not why) he develops the discipline to accomplish these amazing feats of endurance to see if there are lessons that normal people can learn from him to strengthen their own self-control.

They learned about his extensive training to build mental and physical stamina for each of the stunts, which they recount in their book. They use this illustration to bolster their belief that anyone can train themselves to improve their ability to maintain self-control for normal tasks like dieting.

But to me, the most interesting part of this extended anecdote was what he said after they explained to him why they were interested in his preparations and shared their thoughts about strengthening willpower. Blaine, unprompted, told them what happens after the performance is over.

That makes perfect sense…when I’m training for a stunt and I have a goal…I have self-control in every aspect of my life…I eat perfectly…I have a whole different energy. Complete self-control…I don’t overindulge. But as soon as I’m done with that, I go to the opposite extreme, where I have no self-control, and it seems to spread through everything…After a stunt I’ll go from 180 pounds to 230 pounds in three months.”

He provided an example of that pattern by describing what he was doing at the time of that interview:

You’re catching me at a time when I’m the opposite of disciplined…I’ll eat perfectly for ten days and then eat like a maniac for twenty. And then, when I’m ready to train again, when I get really serious, I’ll drop about three pounds a week, and that stays consistent, so I’ll drop twelve pounds a month. So in five months, I’m completely transformed and my discipline levels are really high. It’s amazing. I have self-discipline in work, but I have none in my life sometimes.

Then they offer an explanation of this wildly erratic behavior: “Why did keeping up a modicum of discipline…seem so difficult at the moment? Because he didn’t have the motivation. He had nothing to prove to the public or to himself [!]” (Emphasis and incredulity are mine, and probably yours). They conclude that this behavior is really in the same category as what we all struggle with when we try to maintain self-discipline over the long term.

Well, I don’t know about “we all” but most people I know don’t act like that just because they “have nothing to prove.” Blaine’s description of his behavior sounds more like a caricature of binge eating disorder than a paradigm of self-control, regardless of what feats of endurance he occasionally performs. In fact, the whole point of working on improving self-control, in their view, is precisely to avoid this type of total depletion. Not only was he unable to maintain normal discipline; he had serious problem controlling some intensely extreme impulses.

In their muscle metaphor, Blaine is the equivalent of the circus strongman. You wouldn’t expect to hear The Mighty Atom talking about how weak he is between shows. Rather than build up his willpower strength, Blaine’s highly disciplined training and performances were followed by an enormous backlash that was just as intensely extreme as the training.

When you look at it like that, I would agree that we all do the same thing to some degree. Since he took his restraint to one extreme, he had to compensate by abandoning restraint to the same degree. If we view binge behavior in the same way – as an active correction of a perceived imbalance of control rather than a passive failure of self-discipline – we can offer a clear approach to helping people improve their ability to regulate their behavior in a healthier way: no restrictive dieting, no cleansings, no extremes. Just simple moderation.

I want to elaborate on a point I made in a previous post about trying to achieve perfect restraint when dieting. In that post, I was trying to illustrate how the word “control” is more appropriately understood as managing or directing your behavior rather than restraining or overriding your impulses. Here, I want to demonstrate how an all or nothing approach to weight loss impacts behavior and can actually lead to weight gain.

Instead of approaching weight loss as a process of dynamic self-regulation, many people diet by dividing food into good and bad categories, and then try to abstain from the “bad” foods. Ironically, the likelihood of gaining weight with that approach is much greater. The reason, as I explained in the previous post, is that when perfection is the goal there is only one way to succeed and a million ways to fail, so failure is virtually guaranteed.

I’ll illustrate this with a simple, but realistic example that I often hear from new patients. Assume your diet goal includes abstaining completely from cookies. There are only two possible outcomes: one is to maintain absolute control and have no cookies, and the other is to lose control and have one or more. If you eat even one cookie, then by your definition of success you’re no longer in the “in control” category. By default, you’re automatically transferred to the only remaining category, which is “out of control.”

If that happens, it would be reasonable for you to ask, “Now that I have officially lost control, what difference does it make if I eat one cookie or the whole box? I’ve already failed at my goal, so I’ll have to start my diet all over again anyway (tomorrow, Monday, New Year’s, or whatever your idea of a new start might be). Meanwhile, I might as well have the rest of the chocolate chip cookies!”

Yet the reality, of course, is that your body will count all those calories the same regardless of what your rationale is for eating those cookies. So let’s count it up: if you stop after two cookies, you’ve only consumed about 120 calories. If you eat the whole package, you will have had about 1800 calories, or about the daily caloric intake for an average adult male. Even if that happens just once a week and you stay in absolutely perfect dietary control every other day, you’ll gain around 25 pounds in a year. That’s a lot of dieting effort over the course of a year only to end up 25 pounds heavier!

Clearly then, when it comes to eating, maintaining control is not about absolute restraint; it’s about using your judgment and practicing moderation. You have to decide when to eat, what to eat, and when to stop, rather than simply override the urge to eat something that you feel should not be allowed on your diet. Therefore, if you recognize the obvious reality that one cookie is not the same as a hundred, and you apply that to your behavior, you can begin thinking differently about food. Everything is back on the menu again, and it’s all good.