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by Raymond C. Baker, Ph.D. & Daniel S. Kirschenbaum, Ph.D.

The fourth of July is approaching, and with it come backyard cookouts with hot dogs, hamburgers, and apple pie - a multi-pronged assault on the calorie-conscious.  Coming to the picnic table armed with paper and pencil may help dieters fend off fat, according to a study to be published in the July issue of the American Psychological Association's (APA) Health Psychology. Psychologists Raymond C. Baker, Ph.D., of OSF-St. Francis Medical Center and Daniel S. Kirschenbaum, Ph.D., of the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Chicago found that only the most diligent self-monitors (those who most comprehensively observed and recorded their eating behaviors) among a highly experienced group of weight controllers managed to avoid weight gain during three food-oriented holiday weeks.

The psychologists measured weight gain among 38 participants (32 female) who participated in a long-term cognitive-behavioral program for the treatment of obesity. Before beginning the holiday eating study, the participants had been in the program for an average of 50 weeks and had lost an average of 21 pounds. In their study of self-monitoring and weight control during the holidays, the researchers compared weight change per week during three holiday weeks (Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukkah, and New Year's Eve) versus seven non-holiday weeks. Each week throughout the 10-week study, participants were provided with a self-monitoring book in which he or she was strongly encouraged to record all food consumed during the week and to count the calories in these foods. In addition to self-monitoring, participants were assisted in their efforts to stay focused and positive about their efforts via discussions about decision-making, problem solving, planning, and relapse prevention.

Their findings illustrate that even careful weight controllers often gain weight during holiday weeks. Participants gained 500 percent more weight during the holiday weeks compared with the non-holiday weeks. However, the most careful weight controllers, those who were meticulous at writing down what they ate, were most successful in limiting holiday weight gain. The authors note accordingly that "it may take nearly perfect self-monitoring to buffer the effects of certain high-risk situational challenges." This, and related studies, suggest that taming the formidable biological challenges of weight control requires a remarkable degree of attention, control, and concentration - especially during the holidays.

Research on weight-gain relapsing has consistently demonstrated the importance of using some coping mechanism when faced with persistent, highly caloric challenges. The psychologists note that regular, consistent self-monitoring may assist weight controllers even at the most lavish of buffets. However, the researchers conclude that it is unknown whether increased self-monitoring led to improved weight control, whether improved weight control led to positive psychological states that led to increased monitoring, or whether other variables not measured affected both weight control and self-monitoring. They conclude that it is likely that a reciprocal relationship exists between weight control, affect, self-monitoring, and other behaviors.


The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 159,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.


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