Study: Self-Determination Theory Helps Binge Eaters Make Lasting Behavior Changes

by Dr. Kari Anderson, DBH, LCMHC, CEDS

In our culture, there are often two main motivators for people to make changes to the way they eat:

  • Wanting to be good.
  • Wanting to look good.

Both tend to be good-enough kick starters in the beginning, but as clinicians we know they never hold up for long!

There is, however, a type of motivation that does stand the test of time, and it comes from within, according to a research project conducted jointly by Green Mountain at Fox Run and dietetics graduate students at the University of Vermont (UVM).

At Green Mountain at Fox Run  and our Women’s Center for Binge and Emotional Eating, we take an “inside out” approach to behavior change for women who struggle with weight and binge eating. We base our approach on the self determination theory (SDT), a model that is concerned with shoring up human beings’ intrinsic tendencies to act in ways that effectively support their own health.

We know that external motivators — weight loss benchmarks, wanting to look thinner for a high school reunion, even meeting specific blood sugar goals as set by our doctors — can be helpful in the short term, but rarely make for lasting change. Conversely, intrinsic motivation has proven to be very effective for sustaining long term health behavior change.

That’s why we build our programs around SDT. Our intention is to move our clients from external sources of motivation such as weight loss or other outcome measures to an internal sense of well-being, observed through mindfulness.

In order to determine whether this construct has made a lasting impact on our participants, the UVM researchers drafted in-depth questionnaires to evaluate participants’ sense of competence, relatedness, and autonomy around eating attitudes and behaviors since leaving Green Mountain. These surveys were completed by 432 women who have participated in GMFR programs over the last 10 years.

The study found that there was a statistically significant positive outcome for the women’s sense of autonomy, suggesting that past participants gained a sense of control and ownership of food choices as a result of their experience at Green Mountain at Fox Run. Previous research has found that satisfying one’s need for autonomy has the most influence on a person’s level of motivation for behavior change, followed closely by relatedness. Long-term outcomes in this study were mixed (from indifferent to positive) for competence and relatedness.

More than ever before, eating has become a moral behavior — if you’re not eating “clean”, then what are you…dirty? Through this twisted moral lens, eating behavior becomes about who you are, and people are even more disconnected from their own internal cues around what, when and how much food makes them feel good. This is especially true for people who are also dealing with the stigma of having larger bodies who have been told by society that their bodies are wrong.

At the Green Mountain retreat and our Women’s Center for Binge & Emotional Eating, we teach clients that the path to reconnecting to your body and your internal motivation is through mindfulness.

  • When you can be still and be present in the moment, without judgment, you can watch your thoughts and sense your emotions, and hear the messages your body is trying to send.
  • You can observe how your behaviors make you feel in your daily reality—and begin repeating those behaviors that make you feel well out of an intrinsic desire to feel well.
  • You can notice that some foods you eat, in certain amounts, combinations, and at certain times either feel good or don’t feel good.
  • You can notice that you have a choice about what you eat and when—that no one is telling you what to do but your own body!

People feel good when they are getting their most basic needs met; autonomy is one of those basic needs. If our clients truly feel autonomous and competent in their decision-making regarding food and eating, they are more likely to eat in a way that makes them feel good and supports a healthy body and mind.

Self-determination theory is a construct that has helped Green Mountain at Fox Run clients do just that.

To learn more about this study and how the value of the self-determination theory in treating disordered eating, please contact

Green Mountain at Fox Run also offers professional training weekends to help professionals implement this framework into their practices.