Avoiding the What-the-Hell Health Effect

Man wearing sweater asleep with mince pies on chest
"It’s not the initial giving in that causes problems. It’s the feelings of shame, guilt, loss of control and loss of hope that follow.” (Getty Images)

It’s that time of year when an overindulgent meal can easily turn into a daylong or weeklong stretch of overdoing it. Dubbed the what-the-hell-effect (or, counterregulatory behavior) by dieting researchers Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman, the phenomenon describes a cycle of indulgence, regret or shame, more indulgence, more regret or shame, and so on. Say, you have a piece of pizza or a slice of cake even though you promised yourself that you wouldn’t: You might say to yourself, "Well, I’ve blown my diet, so I might as well have another piece," – and then keep eating. Before you know it, you’ve eaten half the pizza or cake and all kinds of other not-so-healthy food.
For many people, the what-the-hell effect is naturally time-limited. “Most people don’t continue indefinitely – it usually lasts for the day,” says Polivy, a professor emerita in the department of psychology at the University of Toronto. But it can take a toll, in the meantime. “People seem to feel guilty and generally worse after overindulging that way,” Polivy says. “It definitely doesn't improve their mood.”
Sometimes, though, the what-the-hell effect can recur, leading to an ongoing cycle of overindulgence, bummed out moods and more overindulgence, especially for people who are trying to control their eating, Polivy says. “If it stretches out and leads to a general pattern of overeating,” Polivy warns, “it can lead to holiday weight gain.”
Tricky Triggers
It’s not just eating foods that you vowed not to have that can trigger the what-the-hell effect. Stress also can cause some people to become less inhibited with their eating, which can spiral into what-the-hell behavior. So can believing that you’re eating more than other people. A 2010 study in the journal Appetite found that when restrained eaters perceived the slice of pizza they were served as larger than the ones other people were given, they later ate more cookies that they were served. (The funny thing is: All the participants were actually served equal-sized slices of pizza.)
Other perceived setbacks – like weight gain – can trigger a similar loss of restraint. In a slightly unkind study, published in a 1998 issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, researchers weighed restrained eaters and unrestrained eaters on a rigged scale then told them their weight. When restrained eaters were told they were 5 pounds heavier than they thought they were (and actually were), the subjects’ mood and self-esteem dropped considerably, and they ate significantly more food during a subsequent taste test.
With eating patterns, “it’s not a loss of willpower so much as a decision,” says Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University and the University of Queensland in Australia. “When people overeat and fall off their plan, they turn off the monitoring process, stop keeping track and start eating more.” The trouble is, once the what-the-hell cycle kicks in, people’s motivation to get back to their regularly scheduled program can lapse.

Meanwhile, the what-the-hell effect also can happen with alcohol, cigarettes and other substances, in which case it’s sometimes referred to as the abstinence violation effect: This can happen if you’ve made a personal commitment to abstain from a particular substance or behavior, have an initial lapse then let your consumption swing out of control. “Once they have violated their insistence on having none and they’ve had some, they’re susceptible to saying what-the-hell,” Polivy says.
Indeed, a study in a 2005 issue of Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that when people violated their self-imposed limits on alcohol consumption the night before, they experienced more guilt – and the more distressed they felt about it, the more they drank that night. It’s not the initial giving in that causes problems, says psychologist Kelly McGonigal, author of "The Willpower Instinct." “It’s the feelings of shame, guilt, loss of control and loss of hope that follow” the initial lapse that can lead to even bigger willpower failures.
That’s why “some people find it easier to quit drinking than to try to limit their drinking,” says Baumeister. “Plus, alcohol undermines the mental processes through which you keep track of your behavior” since it has a disinhibiting effect.
How to Guard Against It
Granted, it can be particularly challenging to avoid going overboard during the holiday season. For starters, it helps to view and treat holidays as discrete events (as in: Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and so on), rather than as an entire “season.” In that case, you can decide not to try to control your eating or to have a mental list of forbidden foods on, say, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day – and stick with healthy eating habits the other days – thus avoiding setting yourself up for failure, Polivy says. “Giving yourself some allowance to indulge can prevent the guilt and the continuation [of overindulging].”
Also, anything you can do to make yourself more aware of your actions can help you stay more accountable, says Baumeister, co-author of "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength." So keep an eye on yourself in a mirror while you eat or sit next to someone you shared your good eating intentions with. “Don’t eat while you’re distracted while watching TV,” he adds.
If you do go seriously overboard, the best thing you can do is to show yourself some compassion. In a study published in a 2007 issue of the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, researchers had college women eat doughnuts – because they’re typically a forbidden food among those with rigid or restrained eating habits – then induced them to either go about their business or think self-compassionately about their eating. Those who showed themselves compassion felt less distress – and they ate less than half as much candy at a subsequent taste test as those who didn’t forgive themselves.
The moral of the story: “We may think that guilt motivates us to correct our mistakes, but it’s just one more way that feeling bad leads to giving in,” McGonigal notes. So kick your guilt to the curb and treat yourself as you would a close friend – with kindness and compassion, instead of guilt or punishment – and you’ll improve the likelihood that you’ll get back to your regular eating habits more quickly.
Source: https://health.usnews.com/wellness/mind/articles/2017-11-15/avoiding-the-what-the-hell-health-effect