When Dieting Interferes with Dieting

The good news is that a tendency to binge on diet-destroyers is likely to be a matter of genes. The bad news is that our brain, body and external environment can fire up this tendency making some of us more likely to binge eat than others.

Dietary restraint or just plain dieting involves a conscious and voluntary reduction in caloric intake, or at the very least, an intent to do so. In a well controlled experiment involving 1,678 women, each a twin of another, Sarah Racine and her crew of four researchers employed a series of tests with the aim of conclusively determining the relationship between dietary restraint and genetic factors.

Decreasing one’s caloric intake might be seen to be positively correlated with the chances of binge-eating. Oddly enough, the less you eat, the more likely you are to overeat. There are three reasons for this. At a physiological level, the body does not welcome this drop in energy. Your physical self is infuriatingly more attached to its weight than you are. Depriving it of the amount of food its used to makes it crave those ‘missing’ calories so it’s difficult to diet without feeling hungry. On a psychological level, if we equate dietary restraint with control then even a tiny shift into “bad” territory might be perceived as a total loss. We have one square of milk chocolate, figure we’ve blown our diet entirely and decide to have another one, promising ourselves we’ll start again tomorrow.

Finally, and maybe most frighteningly, studies have demonstrated that just because we say we’re dieting, it doesn’t necessarily imply we are. The research in question cites a series of such studies which demonstrate this by comparing people’s own reports of reduced intake of calories with objective measures of how much they were eating — unfortunately, even when we think we’re doing a good job at eating less, it is quite possible that we’re eating the same amount or more.

Racine and her colleagues thus set out to verify the hypothesis that a genetic predisposition might make some people more prone to going on a binge when they practice this kind of dietary restraint. Since dieting doesn’t inevitably lead to binge eating, it’s possible that some of us have the misfortune of possessing genes that make us vulnerable to developing such behaviors. Indeed, on putting their subjects through a battery of tests to quantify their levels of dietary restraint and binge-eating behaviors, the researchers became the first to conclusively prove that there was indeed a significant relationship between the control we exert on our diet and our genetic makeup. Specifically, such voluntary behaviors as a conscious reduction of caloric intake is likely to flare up the tendency to binge eat in those of us who are genetically predisposed to do so.

However, seek solace in the fact that while nearly a quarter of the adolescent and adult female population practises some form of dietary restriction or the other, only somewhere between 1.8-5% of women engage in behavior that might be classed as binge eating. Both genetic and environmental factors have to interact to incite such behaviour, so just because you watch what you eat, you’re not likely to be at risk for developing a binge-eating disorder.


Racine SE, Burt SA, Iacono WG, McGue M, & Klump KL (2011). Dietary restraint moderates genetic risk for binge eating. Journal of abnormal psychology, 120 (1), 119-28 PMID: 21171725

Radhika Takru, MA

Radhika Takru, MA, has a Bachelor's Degree with Honors in Psychology, a Postgraduate Degree in Media, and a Masters degree by research on online journalism and perceptions of authority.
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