Counterregulation of Eating




Counterregulation of Eating Definition

Counterregulation of eating refers to a situation in which an individual eats more after having eaten something previously than after having eaten nothing at all. This pattern of intake runs contrary to the regulation (or compensatory, reduced eating) that we would normally expect and thus is referred to as counterregulation.

History and Background

Counterregulation of EatingAs with many living systems, our food consumption is regulated, in that when we take in too few calories, we experience hunger, which tends to make us eat to restore the caloric deficiency; and when we ingest too many calories, we tend to feel full and cut back on our food intake. Sometimes it seems that eating is not very well regulated, because overindulgence does not always lead to compensatory undereating. Still, the debate is usually about exactly how well regulated eating is, with some researchers emphasizing the power of regulatory mechanisms and others emphasizing their weakness.

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Stanley Schachter suggested, decades ago, that eating was more strongly regulated for normal-weight people than for overweight people. He found that if people were given a certain amount to eat, and then allowed to continue eating, normal weight people would continue eating in inverse proportion to how much they initially ate (normal regulation), whereas overweight people would eat the same amount regardless of how much they initially ate (lack of regulation). This lack of regulation, Schachter argued, helped to explain how overweight people had become overweight.

Studies on dieters (or restrained eaters) and nondieters found that nondieters tended to show normal regulation. When preloaded with (i.e., forced to consume) either zero, one, or two milk shakes, and then given free access to ice cream, nondieters ate ice cream in inverse proportion to the size of the preload. That is, they ate the least after having a two-milk shake preload and they ate the most after having a zero-milk shake preload. Dieters, on the other hand, did not display normal regulation; in fact, they did not even display an absence of regulation. Rather, they displayed counterregulation, eating more ice cream after a milk shake preload than after no preload (zero milk shakes).

Interpretations and Complexities of Counterregulation

The counterregulation effect was interpreted as follows: Dieters are concerned not so much about maintaining an appropriate (or regulated) caloric intake as they are about maintaining their diets, which often involve significant undereating relative to physiological requirements. When they receive no (zero) preload, their diet remains intact; they can achieve their diet goals by continuing to eat sparingly, and so they eat only a minimal amount of freely available ice cream. If, however, the dieter is forced to consume a rich milk shake, then the diet is “blown,” and the dieter concludes that there is no point in further restriction. If the diet cannot be maintained, one might as well indulge oneself in the normally forbidden ice cream. This has been called “the what-the-hell effect.”

There are several elements of this effect worth noting. First, what exactly does it take to blow a diet? Is it the number of calories in the milk shake that exceeds a certain quota? The fact that diets are often organized according to a daily caloric quota means that a single rich milk shake may well be enough to exceed the quota, making further dieting seem useless. Of course, it is quite irrational to think this way. If you eat a rich milk shake and are serious about your diet, it doesn’t make sense to wait until tomorrow to begin eating sensibly; you should start right away and minimize the damage. Dieters, however, do not seem to think particularly rationally about calories. Another possibility is that instead of the milk shakes’ excessive calories blowing the diet, it is the fact that milk shakes in any quantity represent a forbidden food, and eating a forbidden food blows the diet, leading to disinhibited eating. In the study mentioned in the previous section, the effect of a one-milk shake preload was just about as strong as was the effect of a two-milk shake preload. It might be that the number of calories in even one milk shake was excessive, but it also might be that any amount of milk shake could have blown the diet. In fact, a preload of 600 calories of a permitted food (e.g., salad) will not blow a diet, whereas 600 calories of a forbidden food will blow a diet.

A preload does not actually have to be rich, forbidden, or highly caloric to trigger counterregulatory overindulgence; if dieters are misled into believing that the preload is sufficiently rich to blow the diet, then counterregulation may result. It all depends on how the dieter thinks about the preload and its effect on the diet. By the same token, if the dieter is convinced that he or she will be forced to consume a rich preload later in the day, so that the diet will be blown, then the dieter may overeat (counterregulate) in anticipation of this rich preload (actually, a postload).

Most speculation about the psychological dynamics of counterregulation focus on the dieter’s interpretation of whether the preload will blow the diet and make further dieting (for that day) hopeless. Another interpretation is that a rich preload operates to produce overeating in dieters by upsetting them emotionally. As it is known that distress makes dieters eat more (and nondieters eat less), it is possible that the preload operates through this emotional channel.

Importance

The discovery of counterregulation of eating has changed the way that researchers think about dieters and dieting. The fact that dieters will eat more after a rich preload than after no preload highlights the fact that dieters are normally under self-imposed pressure to suppress their eating but that this pressure may be released under certain circumstances, resulting in occasional eating binges. The discovery of counterregulation has solidified the understanding of the dieter as someone who alternates between restraint and indulgence. If dieters are to avoid damaging binges, they must take care to avoid consuming anything that threatens the integrity of their diet or learn to regard supposedly forbidden foods as less threatening.

References:

  • Herman, C. P., & Polivy, J. (2004). The self-regulation of eating: Theoretical and practical problems. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (pp. 492-508). New York: Guilford Press.