Bad Appetite

The social, psychological, and biological drivers of appetite.

Out of control? How holding back can make you fat.

Flexible dietary restraint is the best option for weight control.

Ever been out for dinner with a friend and watched in wonder as she ordered the tuna salad with no dressing then turned away the dessert trolley to save on calories? Your buddy is a ‘restrained eater'. But does it actually make her thin and happy?

Back in the 1970s most psychologists would have resoundingly said ‘No.' Received wisdom was that if you banned yourself from eating Twinkies you'd only feel deprived and binge on Oreos later, eventually making you fat and miserable.

Subsequently they started to realize that often people only started limiting their diets when they were already overeating, overweight or dissatisfied with their bodies. The mere act of restraining wasn't enough to provoke disinhibited eating and excessive weight gain all by itself.

Now most eating researchers have moderated their opinions. They think that restraint has the potential to be counter-productive - but only if it's done in a rigid, inflexible fashion.

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For example, if Ms Restrainer ordered a low calorie dinner and ate oatmeal for breakfast but joined her work colleagues in (sensible) portions of pizza and ice-cream at an unexpected free lunch, she's probably not about to become disinhibited and obese any time soon.

On the other hand, if she ate the salad for dinner, three scheduled strawberries for breakfast and a big plate of nothing at lunch-time, she may be at risk of counter-regulatory overeating, or could even have anorexic tendencies, requiring your understanding and support.

Of course people don't always restrict their eating because of the desire to be thin.

Maybe your mate has just been persuaded by the latest scientific evidence on how caloric restriction helps you stay healthy and live longer.

In a recent study, rhesus monkeys were fed 30% fewer calories than a matched control group who were fed an amount appropriate for their age and weight. Twenty years later they were three times less likely to have died than those fed the normal diet. They also had better glucose regulation and larger brains, especially in areas involved in movement and memory.

Sounds good, yes?

But I know what you're thinking. Rigid control - whether it's motivated by concern for weight or longevity, and whether it makes you skinny, fat or somewhere inbetween - doesn't exactly sound like a recipe for happiness.

Imagine it. Whenever your friends offered you a slice of birthday cake you'd have to say no. If they invited you to a fancy restaurant you'd have to miss out or sit there nibbling miserably on the crudités. No more cheese plate. And even worse: No. More. Alcohol.

The fact is that no one wants to be that person. Nor do they want to hang out with someone who is that strict with themselves. Partly because it makes them feel bad about their own behavior, but also because a certain amount of impulsivity and abandon is attractive in people.

That said, it's undeniable that most people want to keep their weight in control as well as have a good time.

So next time you're out with your buddy and perusing the specials, take a good look and think about what will make you both happiest in the long run.

Maybe she was right about the naked nicoise all along. It might not push your personal taste buttons right away - but paired with a side order of flexible restraint it might turn out to be the most satisfying choice on the menu.

Susan Carnell, Ph.D., is a research psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, where she studies what drives some people toward obesity.

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