Every day on the dot of noon, Jane* would eat her 150-calorie lunch: nonfat yogurt and a handful of berries. To eat earlier, she felt, would be “gluttonous.” To eat later would disrupt the dinner ritual. Jane's eating initially became more restrictive in adolescence, when she worried about the changes her body was undergoing in the natural course of puberty. When she first settled on her lunchtime foods and routine—using a child-size spoon to “make the yogurt last” and sipping water between each bite—she felt accomplished. Jane enjoyed her friends' compliments about her “incredible willpower.” In behavioral science terms, her actions were goal-directed, motivated by achieving a particular outcome. In relatively short order, she got the result she really wanted: weight loss.

Years later Jane, now in her 30s and a newspaper reporter, continued to eat the same lunch in the same way. Huddled over her desk in the newsroom, she tried to avoid unwanted attention and feared anything that might interfere with the routine. She no longer felt proud of her behavior. Her friends stopped complimenting her “self-control” years ago, when her weight plummeted perilously low. So low that she has had to be hospitalized on more than one occasion.