Why Can’t I Stick to My Diet? The What-the-Hell Effect Explained

It’s Friday and you’re wrapping up a difficult week. Work’s been dreadful, your boss has been on you for shit that’s not even your fault, and on top of all of that, you’ve been craving sugar every waking minute. You’ve been on this new diet, you see, and you’ve sworn off everything “bad”: no cream in your coffee, no freakin’ ranch dressing on your pathetic little salad, no cookies, no ice cream, no fun. Your coworker Sally Sue told you before that this is what needed to be done to get shredded for the summer, so you went ahead and threw out all the junk food you had stashed away in your kitchen cupboards. You stuck to sad lettuce, you choked down dry chicken breast, and you cried tears of despair as you quietly sipped down that kale smoothie.

But it was Bob’s birthday at work today, and of course someone had to bring in a cake from Publix to celebrate. Ugh. Why does it have to be someone’s birthday? Doesn’t everyone know that you have a freakin’ diet to stick to? Rude.

You stick your nose up as paper plates topped with sugary goodness are passed around the room over lunch. You purse your lips together as your stomach growls loudly in protest, and it takes everything in you to stick to your celery and carrots. After a round of office gossip, you slunk forlornly back to your cubicle and try to get back to finishing up that Excel project before heading home for the weekend.

An hour later, you get up for a pee break and you can’t help but notice the birthday cake still sitting in the break room as you walk by. There’s still a bit left – plenty, actually. But no. You’re determined. No sugar no fun!

But as the hours go by, your mind keeps wandering back to that cake. It’s only 20 steps away. So easy to get to. Your lunch, quite frankly, tasted like cardboard, and you have been feeling rather lethargic. You could use the sugar boost, right? You could let loose just a tiny bit to reward yourself for a solid week’s worth of work, can’t you?

Okay, just one small bite, you tell yourself. For Bob. After all, I wouldn’t want to hurt his feelings by not partaking in his celebrations, right? Happy birthday, you sonofabitch.

Whoa. Ohmigodthistastessogood. Is this what heaven is like? But what about your diet?

Ah, what the hell, you think to yourself as you reach for another slice of birthday cake. And then another. And another.

Before you know it, half of the remaining cake’s been devoured and you’re sitting in the corner of the room, frosting smeared all over your face. You can hardly recall the past 10 minutes as you stare blankly ahead. Your heart’s racing and you know you’ve totally blown your diet, but there’s absolutely no turning back now. Might as well finish off the cake before the day is over….

What happened?

I’m willing to bet that you or someone you know has been through a similar situation before. (I know I’ve definitely been guilty of this.) Let’s discuss what happened in the scenario above from a psychological standpoint.

Restrained eating describes the phenomenon in which an individual must actively exert effort to avoid the urge to eat, particularly foods that are deemed “forbidden” (Herman & Mack, 1975). This tends to be the default for people wanting to lose fat. Contrast this with unrestrained eaters, who do not set foods off-limits. (If you’re thinking that this reminds you an awful lot of the difference between “clean eaters” and flexible dieters, you’re not incorrect.)

A high score on the 10-item Dietary Restraint Scale (Herman & Polivy, 1980) is considered a risk factor for eating disorders (Jacobi et al., 2004), particularly bulimia nervosa. In other words, the more you restrain your eating, the higher the likelihood that you will develop eating disordered tendencies. But how could this be the case? Why is it that trying to be “better” about your food choices could actually backfire?

We tend to operate via bright lines, according to Dr. Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University and co-author of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. According to him, bright lines are a set of straightforward, unambiguous rules that help us function. And while this can be useful and beneficial in many situations, when it comes to our diet, this can land us in a lot of trouble.

A must-read if you're interested in willpower/behavioral psychology.

nstead of, “Oh, I’ll just moderate my sugar consumption,” it’s, “I will never eat cookies ever again — ever!”

Dieting is typically associated with self-imposed boundaries (Herman & Polivy, 1984): calorie restrictions, shunning of your favorite chocolate cake, and swearing off your favorite treats for good. The list goes on and these boundaries vary from one individual to the net, but one theme is common amongst all: “I’m not allowed to eat that.”

This is not a problem, but only insofar as the individual actually sticks to the diet, day in and day out, for long enough to see the fat loss results desired.

No biggie, right?

This is life.

Unfortunately, life happens, and we don’t live in a bubble. There are bachelorette parties, get-togethers with old friends, and Aunt Judy pops in for an impromptu visit from out of town and whips up baked goods in the kitchen.

As well, the more self-control you exert turning down foods, the more your willpower storage is depleted (Baumeister, 1998). And the more your willpower is depleted, the less likely you are to continue exercising that self-control to do the harder thing.

Aw, shit.

Chances are good that you’ll eventually cave. Probably not on day one, maybe not on day five, but somewhere down the line, sooner or later, you’re just going to be too damn weary, and that ice cream is going to be too tempting to resist.

Come on - you know you want it!

What happens next is called counter-regulatory eating, or the what-the-hell effect in more colloquial terms: once some dietary rule is broken, all hell breaks loose, and you write off the rest of the day, weekend, or even the month as you binge on all the foods that were previously forbidden.

You’ve crossed that bright line.

Counter-regulation is indicative of binge eating tendencies. In fact, the greater the degree of counter-regulatory eating, the more severe the binges (McCann et al., 1992). What’s more, Polivy & Herman propose that dieting is actually the cause of binge eating behavior (1985). If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense; the body is not wired to thrive under extreme dietary restrictions and will fight back (ferociously so, might I add) to ensure that you get the calories it craves.

This falls in line with restraint theory, which states that individuals restrain themselves from things that they deem enjoyable yet detrimental (think peanut butter, chocolate, ice cream, and cookies). Furthermore, dietary restrictions make individuals vulnerable to disinhibiting stimuli such as high-calorie preloads and emotional distress and ultimately can lead to increased weight gain in some cases (Herman & Polivy, 1984). For example, if you’ve banned all sugars from your diet but you find yourself standing in a donut store at 11p.m. on a Saturday night, there is a high likelihood that your diet rules will be abandoned for the evening. Or the weekend. Or what the hell, maybe even the rest of the month.

Smells like sweet, sweet trouble to me.

Interestingly, higher dietary restraint is correlated with higher body mass (Klesges et al., 1992) as well as greater weight cycling history (Lowe & Timko, 2004) – quite the opposite of what common sense might dictate.

What can you do?

Okay, so we’ve established that setting restrictions on your diet when you’re trying to lose fat won’t set you up for long-term success, however tempting it may seem. And it’s understandably easier to set black-and-white rules about what you can and cannot eat, but that doesn’t quite work out, either.

So what to do? The answer is clear:

  • If the goal is fat loss, you want your everyday diet to mimic your regular diet as much as possible.
  • Try not to label foods as “good” or “bad,” as doing so can lead to feelings to guilt can ultimately can contribute to self-sabotaging behaviors.
  • If you enjoy sugar, don’t eliminate it completely for the sake of fat loss martyrdom; rather, moderate your intake. As long as you keep your total calories and daily overall macronutrients in check, some sugar won’t negatively impact your fat loss efforts. (See related: “Sugar – The Sweet Truth,” an excellent write-up by Menno Henselmans on Bret Contreras’s blog.)
  • Find a way to make your nutrition program enjoyable. The more you enjoy your diet, the more likely you are to stick to it. And the more consistently you can stick to your nutrition program, the more successful you will be. If that means having a small handful of m&m’s every evening to keep your sanity in check, then so be it.
  • Finally, let good enough be good enough. Your nutrition is never going to be perfect, but the great news is that it doesn’t need to be. When you boil it all down, consistently adherent will beat sometimes perfection any day.


Baumeister, R., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., and Tice, D.M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 74(5):1252-65.

Boon, B., Stroebe, W., Schut, H., & Jansen, A. (1998). Food for thought: Cognitive regulation of food intake. British Journal of Health Psychology. 3:27-40.

Heatherton, T.F., Herman, C. P, Polivy, J., King, G. A., & McGree, S. T. (1988). The (Mis)measurement of restraint: An analysis of conceptual and psychometric issues. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 97:19-28.

Herman, C. P., & Mack, D. (1975). Restrained and unrestrained eating. Journal of Personality. 43(4):647-60.

Herman, C. P., & Polivy, J. (1984). A boundary model for the regulation of eating. In: A. J. Stunkard, & E. Stellar (Eds.), Eating and its disorders ( pp. 141 ± 156). New York: Raven Press

Jacobi, C., Hayward, C., de Zwaan, M., Kraemer, H. C., & Agras, W. S. (2004). Coming to terms with risk factors for eating disorders: application of risk terminology and suggestions for a general taxonomy. Psychological Bulletin. 130:19-65.

Klesges, Robert C.; Isbell, Terry R.; Klesges, Lisa M. (1992). Relationship between dietary restraint, energy intake, physical activity, and body weight: A prospective analysis. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 101(4): 668-674

Lowe, M. R. (1993). The effects of dieting on eating behavior: A three-factor model. Psychological Bulletin. 114:100-21.

Lowe, M., Timko, A. (2004) What a difference a diet makes: Towards an understanding of differences between restrained dieters and restrained nondieters. Eating Behavior. 5:199-208.

McCann, K. L., Perri, M. G., Nezu, A. M., Lowe, M. R. (1992). An investigation of counterregulatory eating in obese clinic attenders. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 10:461-71.

Polivy, J., & Herman, P. (1985). Dieting and binging: A causal analysis. American Psychologist. 40(2):193-201.

Rogers, P. J., & Green, M. W. (1993). Dieting, dietary restraint and cognitive performance. British Journal of Clinical Psychology. 32:113-16.