Learning self-control takes practice and falling off the wagon is often an unavoidable part of life. But can overindulging during a meal trigger a downward spiral of unhealthy eating? A recent study suggests it may all depend on the person's self-esteem Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Leary, Mark R.; Tate, Eleanor B., Adams, Claire E., Batts Allen, Ashley, et al. Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, NC Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol 92(5), May 2007, 887-904. . Photo: Caitlin Covington

Mind Over Platter — What's the Deal?

Recent research suggests individuals with negative self-thoughts may be more likely to pig out even more after splurging. Also known as the “go big or go home” syndrome, some people cope with the stress of overeating by, well, overeating even more. It’s like deciding to eat the entire pie because there’s already one slice down the gullet: damage already done, right? Not so fast. Research suggests that a little self-compassion can help us enjoy that one slice while leaving some pie for everyone else Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Leary, Mark R.; Tate, Eleanor B., Adams, Claire E., Batts Allen, Ashley, et al. Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, NC Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Vol 92(5), May 2007, 887-904. .

In the study, researchers asked 84 female college students to eat a donut followed by one piece of candy (but nothing this big). Between the two treats, researchers reassured half the women that everyone eats unhealthy from time to time, while the other half received no such encouragement. When it came time for the candy, the participants who were encouraged to be self-compassionate ultimately exercised more control over their eating habits. Simply put, when people are kinder to themselves, it allows them to care more about making healthy choices than stressing over the harmful ones.

While there’s no single best solution to healthy eating, a good start is to put the little hiccups in perspective. So embrace the inner Dalai Lama and remember: self-compassion equals self-happiness— or at least a healthier outlook on splurging.

The Expert's Take — Doug Kalman

"This Wake Forest University study and a recent article in Scientific American Mind demonstrate to me that we, as a people, respond more positively to positive feedback and general attention than to no or negative attention. However, keep in mind that self-compassion does not mean a blanket excuse for living not clean, rather, nutritionally speaking, this is– understanding that what one does over the week (not over one meal) and over a month and periods of time, matters more than the occasional donut or ice cream.”

The Expert's Take — Aaron Lautman

"I agree in the sense that one small splurge is no big deal, but I'm not sure if it's self compassion that helps fight further splurging. From my own experience and the experience of my clients, it's diet education that allows people to understand that indulging once or twice a week tops will not undo everything they accomplished throughout the week. I believe group one in the study could have gotten any kind of pep talk after their donut about health, body, metabolism, daily calorie intake, or even self compassion and they would have less inclined to devour the rest of the candy bowl. If people understand that six days of healhty eating and exercise greatly outweigh one poor meal choice they will be less inclined to fall off the food wagon."

The Takeaway
Study shows having self-compassion helps prevent overindulging during a meal.

Updated August, 2011.

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