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Discuss two or more explanations for the success and/or failure of dieting (9+16 marks)
Dieting is increasingly popular as people try to fit into the thin western ideal of beauty. Theories for
the failure of dieting include the restraint theory, while it has been suggested that the key to success
is the amount of attention we give to the detail of our food.
The restraint theory (Herman and Mack) suggests that restraining our food intake actually increases
the risk of overeating, which is why many diets fail and some people even end up putting more
weight on. Herman and Polivy (1984) developed the boundary model to explain this. According to
this model, dieters have a larger range between their hunger and satiety levels, so it takes them
longer to feel hungry and they need to eat more food to be satisfied. Dieters also have a self
imposed desirable level of food intake. When they perceive themselves to have gone beyond this
level, they experience the disinhibition effect and continue to eat until satisfied. They are more likely
to perceive themselves as going over this level if it is something `forbidden' (e.g. cake).
This theory is supported by a study by Herman and Mack (1975). They had restrained and
non-restrained women of normal weight eat zero, one or two milkshakes. The participants were then
allowed to eat as much ice cream as they wanted. For non-restrained eaters, the results were as
expected; those more ate more milkshake, ate less ice cream, as they were closer to their satiety
level. For restrained eaters however, those who ate more milkshake ate more ice cream; this is the
disinhibition effect. This shows that a food preload (e.g. milkshake) often results in overeating for
those restraining their food intake. However, this study is gender biased as it only involves women.
The results can therefore not be generalised to both genders. This study also ignores individual
differences (e.g. some women may just enjoy ice cream more than others) so the results may not be
A criticism of this theory comes from Ogden (2007) who states that it has limited relevance. He
points out that the behaviour of restricting anorexics cannot be explained by this theory. If restricting
food intake leads to over eating, how do they manage to starve themselves? However, it can be
argued that as anorexia is a mental disorder, its behaviour cannot be generalised with dieters, to
whom this theory is relevant.
This theory also has real life implications for treatment, as obese individuals are often told to diet.
But according to this theory, this will result in over-eating, which may make the patient depressed
and so they over-eat even more. A limitation of this theory is that it offers no alternative for these
An explanation for the success of dieting has been proposed by Redden (2008), who states that the
key to success is detail. Instead of looking at their meals as `yet another salad', Redden suggests
dieters should concentrate on details of the meal (such as tomato, lettuce, ect.). This will prevent
dieters becoming bored with their food so they are less likely to break their diet and eat something
Redden carried out a study to support this hypothesis. She gave 135 people 22 jelly beans each, one
at a time. Each time a bean was dispensed, they were either given general information about it (e.g.
`bean number 7') or more specific details (e.g. `cherry flavoured bean number 7'). Participants who
saw the general information become bored with the task quicker and those who saw details enjoyed
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This shows that paying attention to detail may stop dieters becoming bored with their
food and persist with their diet.
It can be argued that there are cultural differences that effect the likelihood of diets failing because
of a natural inclination to obesity. For example, Park et al (2001) found that Asian adults were more
prone to obesity than Europeans.…read more