Review

International Journal of Obesity (2012) 36, 665–674; doi:10.1038/ijo.2011.156; published online 9 August 2011

Dietary restraint and self-regulation in eating behavior

F Johnson1, M Pratt1 and J Wardle1

1Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, University College London, London, UK

Correspondence: Professor J Wardle, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK. E-mail: j.wardle@ucl.ac.uk

Received 13 April 2011; Revised 22 June 2011; Accepted 2 July 2011
Advance online publication 9 August 2011

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Abstract

Self-control is generally viewed as highly desirable. In the eating behavior domain, however, the dominance of restraint theory has made the proposition that individuals should attempt to control their eating more controversial. This review discusses evidence from the dietary restraint literature and from studies of self-regulation processes to examine how far self-imposed control around food can be seen as beneficial for effective weight management. Epidemiological and field study evidence provides little support for the proposition that restrained eating causes disinhibited eating patterns. Restraint is often initiated as a response to weight gain, and the co-occurrence of disinhibited and restrained eating patterns on an individual level might better be explained by restraint acting as a marker for overeating tendencies. A sustained effort to monitor and control food intake characterizes successful long-term weight maintenance, suggesting that self-regulation in the eating domain is essential for those with a tendency to gain weight. Evidence from the literature on cognitive self-regulation suggests that there may be potential for people to learn to self-regulate better, both through training and controlled exposure techniques. Integration of the disparate theories of self-regulation is needed to identify the best ways of promoting self-regulation in order to support effective weight control, both in clinical and community settings.

Keywords:

dietary restraint; self-regulation; weight loss; eating behavior; self-control

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