Why We Fall off the Diet Wagon and How to Get Back on Track

July 12, 2016

We all want to be healthy and look attractive. It is no wonder that many of us seem to constantly watch what we eat.

Perhaps we can all, more or less, relate to the following scenario:

You have an important occasion coming in a couple of months and you decide that, in order to look your best, you need to shed a few pounds. You set yourself a target to eat X amount of calories per day and manage to stick to your plan successfully for the first few days. But then it’s your colleague’s birthday at work and there is a very tempting piece of cake right there on the desk in front of you. You haven’t had any “naughty” sweets for a while now and you feel exhausted after a 2-hour meeting (that could have been accomplished in a 5 minute email!). Suddenly, you give in and grab for the cake!  After the initial euphoria dies down, a feeling of guilt kicks in. A tiny voice in your head says “you have failed your diet, your willpower is crap, so you may as well have another piece of cake.” You’ve ruined your diet today anyhow, so you decide to skip the gym later and join your colleague for some further birthday celebrations over pizza and wine. You come back home and think: “What the hell have I done?!”



Psychologists formally refer to the “what the hell” phenomenon as “abstinence violation effect” – something which is all too common amongst dieters.  It is important to mention that dieters are not only those people who restrict their food intake in order to lose weight, but also those who are consciously and continuously monitoring what and how much they eat in order to maintain a certain weight. For this reason,”what-the-hell” effect can happen to anyone who is trying to control their eating behaviour.

  1. What predisposes us to experiencing “what the hell” effect?

Generally, this effect happens when we control our food intake via cognitive forces (i.e. a set calorie goal or dietary restrictions) rather than physiological forces (i.e. bodily signals of hunger or fullness).

2. What does “what-the-hell” phenomenon consist of?

What the hell effect

Infographic data is sourced from this textbook.

3. How the type of your goal can set you up for success versus failure.

There are two types of goal framing:

Acquisitional  – when you develop a new behaviour in order to achieve a goal. An example of an acquisitional goal would be taking up running in order to train for a marathon (Cochran & Tesser, 1996).  Acquisitional goals can be viewed as positively framed as they focus on gaining new skills rather than monitoring errors and losses.

Inhibitional  – when you avoid a certain behaviour in order to achieve a goal. An example of an inhibitional goal would be restricting food intake in order to lose weight. Inhibitional goals are commonly known “all-or-nothing” goals (Soman & Cheema, 2004) and can be viewed as negatively framed as they focus on preventing losses and do not provide us with any positive feedback (Cochran & Tesser,1996).

all or nothing goal

Data for this chart has been sourced from Coelho do Vale et al., 2015

The crucial difference between acquisional goals and inhibitional goals is the way we perceive our failures. Acquisitional failure is perceived simply as lack of progress, whilst inhibitional failure is perceived as much worse and brings us into the “all-or-nothing” state of mind (Soman & Cheema, 2004).

For example – If you have decided to go for a 5K run, but only ran half of that, you have not achieved your goal, but you have not failed either as you have still gone running. By contrast, if you ate a cookie and went over your set calorie allowance – that is it – you have exceeded your calorie limit for the day and there is no longer a need to stick to your diet as you have already failed. Research has shown that people in the first scenario may feel depressed for a little while, but this feeling is not strong enough to send them “off the rails,” whereas, in the second scenario, people usually experience feelings of anxiety and agitation, which are powerful enough to make them abandon their goal completely (Cochran & Tesser, 1996).
All or nothing thinking

4. What can you do to stop yourself from going off the rails and achieve your weight loss goal?

  1. Reframe your goal from inhibitional to acquisitional. That means instead of having a zero-tolerance attitude towards certain foods or going above your daily calorie allowance, reward yourself for every healthy meal you eat (try and choose non-food rewards). The number of calories should not be your primary focus. Calorie counting and portion sizing are useful tools for weight loss and weight maintenance, but the overall nutritional balance of your diet is more important than a mere number on the packet. Think of every healthy choices as a positive experience that will improve your self-efficacy.
  2. Be kind to yourself when you give in to your temptations. It’s not eating that cookie, which makes you abandon your goal. It’s what happens afterwards – those overwhelming feelings of guilt, worthlessness, anxiety and anger (Mooney et al. 1992). For example, you eat the cookie and mentally discard all of the progress you have made, feeling like you have to start from scratch all over again. You stay on track to make things right until the next episode of “what the hell.”  This all-or-nothing style of thinking creates a negative feedback loop which can only be broken with positive reinforcement (Soman & Cheema, 2004).
  3. Plan when you go off the rail. As counterproductive as it sounds, this strategy works (Coelho de Vale et al, 2015)! Acknowledge that there will be times when temptations are present and accept the fact that you might not be able to resist them. By allowing yourself to eat something “naughty” from time to time, you will diminish those goal-damaging feelings of guilt and anger and keep motivated to pursue your goal (Prinsen et al. 2016). And if you manage to resist that temptation? Acknowledge your mini-victory, learn from it and implement the same strategy next time the temptation is present. It’s a win-win situation. Look at the diagram below to see how planned short-term deviation from your plan can help you to achieve your goal in the long term.self-licencingjpg

Data for this chart has been sourced from Coelho do Vale et al., 2015

4. The most important step towards a healthy relationship with food is listening to your body. When you start eating in accordance to feelings of hunger or fullness, you create fewer chances for “what-the-hell” effect to kick in as you are no longer breaking any rules. Mindful eating is one of the best ways of learning to listen to your internal cues. You can learn more about mindful eating here.

Have you ever experienced the ‘what-the-hell’ effect? Let us know in the comments section below.


  1. Cochran, Winona and Abraham Tesser. “The What The Hell Effect: Some Effects Of Goal Proximity And Goal Framing On Performance”. Striving And Feeling: Interactions Among Goals, Affect, And Self-Regulation. Leonard L. Martin and Abraham Tesser. 1st ed. 1995. 
  2. Soman, Dilip and Amar Cheema. “When Goals Are Counterproductive: The Effects Of Violation Of A Behavioral Goal On Subsequent Performance”. J Consum Res 31.1 (2004): 52-62.
  3. Coelho do Vale, Rita, Rik Pieters, and Marcel Zeelenberg. “The Benefits Of Behaving Badly On Occasion: Successful Regulation By Planned Hedonic Deviations”. Journal of Consumer Psychology 26.1 (2016): 17-28. 
  4. Mooney, J.Patrick et al. “The Abstinence Violation Effect And Very Low Calorie Diet Success”. Addictive Behaviors 17.4 (1992): 319-324. 
  5. Prinsen, Sosja, Catharine Evers, and Denise de Ridder. “Oops I Did It Again: Examining Self-Licensing Effects In A Subsequent Self-Regulation Dilemma”. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being 8.1 (2016): 104-126.
More about Anna

Hi, I’m Anna. Originally from Ukraine, I moved to the UK in 2011 to start a degree in Nutrition and Psychology at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, South-West London. This relatively unusual course choice has been influenced by my past experiences of unsuccessful dieting. I was determined to answer the question: if we want to lose weight, why can’t we just eat less and exercise more? A few years on, I now have a BSc Nutrition with Psychological studies. I hope that my articles will bring clarity in the ever-changing and often confusing areas of diet and health.

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