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Psychologists and health experts have long believed that acting on impulse is a dieter’s downfall. (Chocolate cupcake! Yum!) But, according to new research, those who take the time to deliberate before digging in may be just as likely to overindulgeBecause I Am Worth It”: A Theoretical Framework and Empirical Review of a Justification-Based Account of Self-Regulation Failure. De Witt, Huberts, J.C., Evers, C., et al. Utretcht University, the Netherlands. Personality and Social Psychology Review 2013 Nov 8. Epub ahead of print.. That’s because, when we reflect, we may think up justifications for why we should just eat the cupcake.

The researchers say people tend to think they’ll feel less guilty about indulging if they have a good reason for doing so — even though there’s no evidence that thinking “I’ll exercise it off tomorrow” makes people feel less remorseful.

While this study may complicate the notion that impulse eating is to blame for most dieters’ difficulties, it only reinforces the idea that health habits are the product of complex psychological processesThe role of neural impulse control mechanisms for dietary success in obesity. Weygandt, M., Mai, K., Dommes, E., et al. Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Berlin. Neuroimage 2013 Dec; 83;669-78.. We restrict ourselves because we know that second piece of pie will make us feel “fat” tomorrow, we down the pie because we already “destroyed” our diet with a giant cookie this morning, or we eat for other reasons entirely.

All this research leaves us in a difficult place: Should we pause before eating a tempting food and consider whether we really want it, or will that just lead to overindulgence? Perhaps the first step is being aware that we’re bound to come up with excuses, and not to set unreasonable expectations (like “no sweets, ever”). That way, we’ll be better prepared to accept some excuses and ditch others (It’s my birthday next year!) that just don’t cut it.

Do you find yourself trying to justify your food choices on a constant basis? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.