Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Obesity: Mind Over Matter?

Why is that person fat? Several answers that are usually evoked by this question go something like this: He’s just lazy. She eats too much. He doesn’t exercise. She can’t control her cravings. The list could go on since there are so many stereotypes that characterize individuals who are overweight. Yet did you ever guess that maybe the reason someone is overweight has to do more with their mind rather than the food they’re consuming?

Previous research has supported the idea that certain foods cue a certain human response, be it desire, craving, or salivation. We may pay more attention to certain foods because we like how they taste or smell. Researchers Bongers, van de Giessen, Roefs, Nederkoorn, Booij, van den Brink, and Jansen in the Netherlands proposed that obese individuals pay more attention to foods that have a lot of calories, and this attentional bias towards these high calorie foods leads to more consumption of these foods. Furthermore, the researchers proposed that this relationship between attention towards high calorie foods and obesity only occurs when the individual is highly impulsive. As such, they are easily distracted, have a hard time inhibiting automatic responses and behaviours, and act without thinking. This impulsive trait could be what leads individuals to focus their attention on a rewarding and satisfying item, such as junk food.

The researchers set out to test this assumption by recruiting 319 participants aged 18 to 45 either obese or of healthy weight. They had participants answer several questionnaires about impulsivity, food cravings, dietary restrictions, and binge eating. They also had participants complete a series of tasks that tested how easily participants were distracted by images of high calorie foods, how quickly they could inhibit their automatic responses, and low long they would be willing to wait to receive a monetary reward. These tasks measured attention, inhibition, and impulsivity respectfully.

What the researchers found was exactly what they predicted: obese individuals were also more likely to be impulsive, and this combination of obesity and impulsivity was more likely to lead individuals to pay more attention to high calorie foods, which further may have led to an increase in consumption of these foods. So it wasn't that these participants were lazy or craving sugar, but their attention was more distracted by these foods. Obese, impulsive people were more likely than individuals of healthy weight to see these high calorie foods as rewarding and therefore were likely to eat more junk food. 
So why is this important? If we know about this cycle between obesity, impulsivity, and attentional bias towards high calorie foods, we can actually work to do something about it. About 14 million people in Canada over the age of 18 report being overweight or obese (Statistics Canada, 2015). That is a huge number of people, and it continues to rise. If we know impulsivity plays a large role in how obese individuals think, then treatment for obesity can start incorporating behavioural techniques to reduce or control impulsivity. Obese individuals can also receive training to help them focus their attention and become less distracted by high calorie foods. More clinical trials with this research may lead to a breakthrough in how we treat obese and overweight individuals. When it comes to obesity, maybe it really is mind over matter.

Bongers, P., van de Giessen, E., Roefs, A., Nederkoorn, C., Booij, J., van den Brink, W., & Jansen, A. (2015). Being Impulsive and Obese Increases Susceptibility to Speeded Detection of High-Calorie Foods. Health Psychology, 34, 677-685. doi:10.1037/hea0000167

Statistics Canada. (2015). Body mass index, overweight or obese, self-reported, adult, age group and sex [Data file]. Retrieved from tableaux/sum-som/101/cst01/health81a-eng.htm

Nicole Zomer

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