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Vermont Quarterly

What Dieting’s Lessons Can Teach About Addiction


What Dieting’s Lessons Can Teach About Addiction

PSYCHOLOGY |  When we’re on a diet, we’ll avoid cheeseburgers and ice cream and other foods we love, even though we’re ravenous and hankering for them. Once off the diet, we’ll often return to stuffing ourselves with goodies—even if we aren’t hungry.

We learn self-control while we’re dieting. But a new study by UVM researchers suggests that control of consumption isn’t simply a great act of willpower but possibly is guided by the states of hunger and satiety.

During a diet, hunger may become the context in which we learn to deny eating impulses. When we stop dieting and no longer feel hungry, the context vanishes, and we may lose the inclination to restrain our food intake. That’s perhaps a reason why weight regain after a diet ends is so common.

Context matters, says Mark Bouton, the UVM psychology professor who co-authored the study with his PhD student Scott Schepers, published in the journal Psychological Science. For years, Bouton has looked at the importance of context in controlling behavioral and emotional responses.

His research shows that the suppression of behavior or emotion depends upon context—a physical setting, a time period or an internal state such as hunger, mood or the influence of a drug. And the behavior or emotion will “renew” when the context changes or returns to where it was when the response was learned.

Bouton is collaborating with University of California San Diego researchers who work with obese children. The study teaches the kids to inhibit their craving in the presence of food and food cues, and also studies the role of context.

“You need to practice the inhibition in the context where it’s going to matter,” Bouton says. “You want to learn to control your eating in the presence of all those cues that have been so hard.”

Bouton’s research also could inform treatment of opioid or other drug abuse. He draws parallels between overeating and addiction, alcoholism and smoking—habit-forming behaviors in response to cues, and influenced by context. Drug rehabilitation programs, like diets, create a context for suppressing the behavior, Bouton says, so it’s not surprising that addicts can relapse when they get out of such programs and back to their normal lives.

Because context is key to controlling behavior, Bouton hopes his work expands the understanding of this concept and sheds light on what causes—and could inhibit—addictive behavior.

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