I’m very ambivalent about the issue of keeping a food diary. I know that when people do it, the impact it has on their eating can be very impressive. So what’s the down side of recommending it? For one thing, when someone who is just trying to be helpful, tells you that you “really should” keep a daily food diary, that’s one more rock dropped into the pan that hangs on the external control side of the scale.  It’s just as likely to have a negative effect as a positive one.

People differ in how they feel about keeping journals, diaries, or scrapbooks. Personally, if I was told to record everything I ate, I would either give up after about a day, or if I did stick with it, the information wouldn’t be worth the electronic pixels that it’s recorded on. And I know from my patients’ responses to this recommendation that there are many people who have the same attitude toward recording everything they eat as I do.

Even dedicated diarists who are knowledgeable about nutrition can be way off in their estimates of portions and calories that they consume. A study published in 2002 showed that although dietitians who were asked to record their food intake over a seven-day period were more accurate than non-dietitians, they still underestimated the calories they consumed by more than 10 percent. The non-dietitians in the study were off by more than 20 percent!

I believe, however, that the accuracy of the details recorded is not the key factor in explaining the effectiveness of keeping a food journal. The real value of the diary comes back to mindful awareness. Just the process of thinking about what you have eaten forces you to stop and reflect on your eating behavior. That alone can be a very sobering experience for many people who eat so automatically they’re not even aware of having other more appropriate options. If you’re not aware that you have options then literally, you don’t have a choice. From a practical point of view, it’s no better than being forced to eat. More than that, the fact that what you’re about to put in your mouth will be recorded, makes a big difference in whether you eat it or not. Or, put another way, it allows you to make choices.

There’s an old joke about a couple on vacation in the Catskill Mountains in one of those old resorts. They were looking at their menus and pointed out to the waitress that under side dishes it just says “choice of vegetables.” “So?” asked the waitress. The man asked, “Well, what’s the choice?” The jaded server rolled her eyes and said, “The choice is, do you want it or don’t ‘cha?” When you consider any global behavior change on the microscopic, nano-level, it all comes down to individual decisions: Should I have this one or that one? Should I take another portion or not? Do you want this or don’t ‘cha?

How frequently are we confronted with choices about what we eat? A study done by Brian Wansink at Cornell looked at how many food-related decisions we think we make every day and compared it to how many we actually make. The results were pretty astounding. The researchers found that we’re aware of making about 15 daily decisions concerning food. The reality? We make over 200 food-related decisions every day! That difference is where most of your excess calories come from.

So the real low-hanging fruit, where a minor effort can have a major impact, lies in being more aware of even a small percentage of those 185 or so unconscious decisions you make every day. The accuracy and details of your food diary are not the critical factor in its effectiveness. Instead, the value of writing it down is that it encourages you to open your eyes to the many opportunities you have every day to make better decisions.

What does that mean for those of you who, like me, don’t care for keeping track of everything you eat? It means two things: one, you don’t have to obsess over the details. Just making a quick note – even a mental note – in the evening of whatever you can recall eating during the day can make a difference. Second, you don’t have to do it for the rest of your life. You can quit when you start thinking automatically about what you’re eating rather than just eating automatically.

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If you feel that you have a good understanding of how I explained autonomous control, then this part may or may not be useful to you. If that’s the case, feel free to skip it. At the risk of overexplaining it, this schematic serves my need to clarify things visually. That’s how I learn best, so I like to use visual images to explain things as well.

This is a graphical depiction of the important role that a balanced sense of autonomous control plays in behavior, and how that can be set off-balance by a shift to the extreme on either side. As the term implies, true autonomous control combines autonomy, or independent action, with control, or responsibility and structure. Going to an extreme on either side of the scale can throw everything off-balance which is psychologically unsustainable.

When that does happen, the imbalance tends to be restored by going to the extreme on the other side. Too much structure begins to feel like externally-imposed control, which is counteracted by defiant or oppositional behavior. Since the counter-reaction, rather than the outcome, is the primary motivation, this behavior is often acted out on impulse rather than by weighing costs and benefits.

It would also follow that lacking a sense of control and structure would be equally destabilizing by creating a feeling of internal chaos, and could lead to restoring balance in the other direction by becoming overly structured or self-restrictive. This may explain what motivates certain behaviors such as anorexia or other types of extreme dieting.

The ideal approach is to maintain balanced moderation by having a sense of authority and self-direction, but also by taking into account a sense of responsibility: to others, to your work, to society, and so on. That responsibility can take the form of conforming to external expectations, like getting up to go to work in the morning, obeying the law, adhering to a schedule when necessary, or offering a compromise when your legitimate autonomous needs conflict with those of someone else.

When there are moderate and reasonable limits on your freedom, then you are able maintain an emotionally even keel. This allows you to pursue goals autonomously, guided by your own needs and by how those are met by the behavior, rather than impulsively acting in opposition to your perception that someone else is trying to control you.

I call this a dynamic equilibrium model of autonomous control. Dynamic equilibrium is a term used primarily in the natural sciences, but has also been used in the social sciences. The idea is that a system is maintained in a relatively steady and balanced state (homeostasis) while the elements that maintain the balance are in flux and they react to each other to maintain equilibrium. That is, they move in tandem mirroring each other so that if one moves to the extreme, the other does too to maintain constancy. It’s a zero-sum game.

When the counter-balancing elements involve emotions and behavior, and they shift to the extremes, you can see the kind of problems that may result (in the boxes at the bottom of the graphic). That brings us back to our topic and illustrates how emotional eating fits in.

Of course, understanding the theory and successfully applying it to your behavior are two separate things. The four-step approach that I outlined here is necessary for overcoming emotional eating, but may not be sufficient in conquering overeating. A long-standing pattern of emotional eating may become so habitual that even without the external control stressors triggering the behavior, simple habit can keep it going. In future posts I will focus on the mental habits that over time tend to groove a rut in your eating behavior and how to get a handle on pulling yourself out of them.

If you’re like every other human, and chances are that’s the case, stress can enter your life in all forms, from every possible source, and in every possible way. Therefore, saying that emotional eating is due to stress is like saying that an illness is due to being sick. It’s circular and meaningless. Unless you can identify a specific cause that can be linked to the effect you will be unable to eliminate the symptom.

However, with all the possible suspects as the source of the stress behind this behavior it can be very difficult to identify the ones that are actually causing it. Fortunately, it should be clear by now that emotional eating is a specific type of response to a specific type of stress. It is a defiant act of self-liberation from the domination of external control, so the search for a cause can therefore be more focused. The first question to ask, then, is not “Why am I stressed out,” but “In what way am I feeling controlled?

As I described in the previous section, the source of the problem is often related to control around eating, such as explicit or implicit pressure to lose weight. But it can also come from any other situation in which you feel you bear the full responsibility for getting something done, but your freedom or authority to do it your way is being limited by other people or circumstances. (I want to emphasize that you feel that’s the case; it doesn’t mean that it is! This is an important point for finding alternative solutions, which I’ll address in the next step.)

A simple and fairly common example is when someone asks you for a favor. You may have no time, energy, or desire to say yes, but there’s a part of you that feels unable to say no. Perhaps you’re concerned that this person will be angry with you or will see you as a bad or uncaring person. Maybe being seen as the kind of person who is always available to help is more important to you than commitments that you’ve made to yourself to get certain things done. So even if this means that the items on your own to do list get downgraded in priority, you have to make that sacrifice to maintain your image.

All of this is very nice, but not so deep down, you may feel resentful. Whether you acknowledge it or not, you may be grumbling to yourself about how inconsiderate this friend is for “forcing” you to give up what you need to do, and instead do something that is inconvenient and time-consuming. How rude!

Of course, none of this is true. The friend may have been very accepting if you explained that you’re unable to comply with the request, even without providing a good excuse. But there’s some part of you that has internalized the idea that complying with every request is the right way to behave. You may even be able to recall some such explicit message, spoken in a voice that sounds suspiciously like one of your parents.

Whatever the reason, you feel forced, compelled and controlled. If this is an ongoing occurrence, you will likely feel that your sense of independence, what psychologists refer to as self-determination, is out of balance. To correct that, you unconsciously feel the need to engage in some behavior that makes it right again by reassuring yourself that you’re still in charge. Any situation in which you find yourself feeling that your sense of independence is impinged upon may be a likely candidate for causing a counter-reaction type of behavior like binge eating.

This behavior feels like a satisfying correction to the imbalance caused by the impaired sense of autonomy because you’re able to break the rules without hurting anyone else. “After all,” you tell yourself, “I’m the one who made the rule, so I’m the one who can break it.” Yes, you have the freedom of the proverbial fox that’s guarding the hen house. On the other hand, of course, “not hurting anybody else” implies that you are hurting yourself with this behavior. So why isn’t that enough to prevent it?

If the object of the behavior is to feel free, then that would include feeling free of having to worry about the predictable outcome. “I may feel bad later,” you tell yourself, “but I don’t care!” That’s the point of the freedom – you have the freedom to ignore consequences.

Recognizing the source of the perceived control is the key to overcoming that counter-behavior, because this pattern only “works” if you’re not fully cognizant of why you’re doing it. If, however, you use the urge to binge as a signal to think about how you might be feeling controlled, you defeat the supposed purpose of acting in opposition to that control, which is to feel independent. As Edward Deci puts it in his book, Why We Do What We Do, “When people are either complying with or defying controls, they are not being autonomous, and they can know that.”

Being aware of your options and choosing to act out of preference, not out of defiance, is the key to true independence.

Have you ever found that it’s easier to diet when you’re doing it for yourself rather than to please someone else? If you have, research backs that up; people who make the effort to lose weight for their own reasons are more successful at it than those who are doing it for external reasons.

At least that’s what people in a six-month weight loss program said when they were asked about their reasons for dieting. The participants who reported more internal motivation to lose weight attended the program more regularly, lost more weight during the program, and maintained the weight loss better than those whose motivation was more external.

Mark Muraven was not involved in that study, but he is one of the researchers who helped develop the depletion model of self-control. In fact, as a graduate student working on his master’s thesis, he designed and carried out the original study that demonstrated how self-restraint has a negative impact on later attempts to control behavior, and concluded that it’s an indication that self-control or willpower  is a limited resource that gets depleted with use. Muraven is now an associate professor at the University of Albany and wanted to examine the effects of internal versus external motivation on self-control.  About five years ago he published an interesting paper that describes a study he carried out to explore this question.

He told participants (82 undergraduates) that the purpose of the study was to see the effect that sugar had on strength. It actually had nothing to do with that, but he needed the subjects to be blind to the real purpose of the study. (He straightened them out afterwards in a standard debriefing.) First, they were asked to squeeze a spring-loaded hand grip, which is a common task used to measure self-control. The more self-control they had, the longer they would squeeze the device before giving up. This was their baseline measure of how long they can hold it.

He then presented them with plates of assorted cookies and told them that he’ll be stepping out for a few minutes. Before he left, he explained that they can choose to eat the cookies or not. However, the researchers for the (mock) “sugar strength” test especially need participants who could be in the group of those who did not eat any cookies.  “The choice,” he emphasized, “is entirely yours. But we would really appreciate it if you would not eat the cookies.” When the investigator returned to the room, he administered the grip test again.

Only three of the 82 participants ate any cookies (their results were excluded), so the group was pretty compliant, but they had different motivations for not eating them. As they revealed on a questionnaire they were given afterward, some people endorsed internal reasons not to eat the cookies, like, “it’s fun to challenge myself,” which would be an internal motivation. Others didn’t eat them “because I want the experimenter to like me,” an external motive. The questionnaire was designed to measure autonomous self-control on a continuum from very internally motivated to very externally motivated.

They also measured the difference between the baseline and follow-up grip-strength endurance times for each person and compared the degree of drop-off in endurance with the degree of autonomy the subjects felt. The results? As the previous observations indicated, it confirmed that internal motivation for self-control was less “depleting” (in depletion model terms) than external motivation. The problem is, the resource-depletion theory has no explanation for why that should happen. As Muraven concluded, “this study indicates that the [depletion] model needs a significant revision, as autonomous self-control appears to deplete far less self-control strength than compelled self-control.”

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has had this experience: You’re rushing to get out of the house on a winter morning to drive the older kids in carpool, and as you struggle to get the youngest into his snowsuit he’s screaming, “No! I want to do it myself!!”  Or you might be old enough to remember the tagline from the Anacin commercial, “Mother, please! I’d rather do it myself!” Young or old, people have a need to feel that they are the source of their own actions. Why is the need to do it by and for yourself so important?

The need for autonomous control, or the self-driven motivation to act, has been explained by two psychologists at the University of Rochester, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci. According to this idea,  called Self-Determination Theory, a feeling of autonomy is, along with competence and relatedness, one of the three main elements of intrinsic motivation. For a good non-technical explanation of these ideas, read Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do. In it, he relates an old Jewish fable told to him by a friend.

It seems that bigots were eager to rid their town of a Jewish man who had opened a tailor shop on Main Street, so they sent a group of rowdies to harass the tailor. Each day, the ruffians would show up to jeer. The situation was grim, but the tailor was ingenious. One day when the hoodlums arrived, he gave each of them a dime for their efforts. Delighted, they shouted their insults and moved on. The next day they returned to shout, expecting their dime. But the tailor said he could afford only a nickel and proceeded to hand a nickel to each of them. Well, they were a bit disappointed, but a nickel is after all a nickel, so they took it, did their jeering, and left. The next day, they returned once again, and the tailor said he had only a penny for them and held out his hand. Indignant, the young toughs sneered and proclaimed that they would certainly not spend their time jeering at him for a measly penny. So they didn’t. And all was well for the tailor.

As long as their motivation was their own sheer pleasure at giving this poor tailor a hard time, they would do it for free. But once they got used to doing it for a reward, their internal motivation was replaced by the external reward. When the incentive ended, the behavior stopped. (Think about the implications for corporate wellness programs that rely on incentives to get employees to lose weight and exercise!) Similarly, the surest way to doom whatever you might accomplish on a diet is to lose the weight for someone else rather than for yourself. At some point, the pay-off ends while the deprivation continues and is no longer worth it.

But what does all this say about whether self-control is the result of willpower, as the depletion-resource-strength model theorists contend? If you recall from my previous post about why people would repeat something that they know will cause them to feel worse afterward, my conclusion was that the reinforcement for that behavior was actually very powerful; it was all about freedom, autonomy, and control, as self-determination theory has been saying all along.

When Muraven says that the results of his study on autonomy and self-control indicate the need to revise the depletion model, I would agree.  It seems that when there is a sense of imbalance between having control over your own choices versus feeling forced or pressured to behave according to expectations – even self-imposed expectations – that balance must be restored. Sometimes, that may even be at the expense of having to deal with unpleasant consequences later .

When the depletion theorists describe certain behaviors, such as emotional eating, as a “breakdown” of restraint, it is not due to a passive depletion of the strength to resist; rather, it’s an active strategy to restore an imbalance in autonomy. In the next post I’ll describe in more detail this idea of balance, imbalance and restoration, and how it can be applied to improve the self-regulation of behavior.