September 28, 2018
Study finds that more self-control is not the way to handle weight gain issues
CARBONDALE, Ill. — With over $60 billion spent annually by Americans on weight loss programs and diets, it is clear that the obesity epidemic is not caused by a lack of care. Rather, research shows that much of the problem comes down to a battle in the brain between impulsivity and self-control.
Food choices are a part of life for every individual. In an attempt to understand this normal decision making process, Jebaraj Asirvatham, assistant professor in the agribusiness economics degree program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, used unique, non-experimental data to evaluate the food struggle within the common person, and find out why this battle is such a big issue.
Impulsive eating leads to higher calorie intake
From corner bakeries, to social settings and drive-thru restaurants, food is a constant part of the American culture. In the past, food decisions were predominantly determined by factors such as quality and price, but now, many of these choices are made because of convenience and time. But while these options are quick, they also increase the chance of eating impulsively and without thought.
Asirvatham’s research shows these impulsive actions are what generate an over-eating scenario. When a person is at a social setting or driving by a bakery, they may eat because the food is readily available. But such impulsive actions are what often lead to an overall higher calorie intake.
“The amount of calories you intake in response to impulse is more than the self-control times,” Asirvatham said.
While some people are more prone to impulsive food choices than others, usually everyone has some level of an internal battle.
“Generally people exercise self-control, and they are impulsive,” Asirvatham said.
Food choices are a battle in the brain
Most people can recognize the struggle they face between making healthy and unhealthy food choices. But the battle between impulsivity and self-control is a deeper struggle than many people may think.
“There is a neuroscientific basis for this,” Asirvatham said. “Initially people used to think that impulse and self-control are one thing, and you have a balance. But it seems like impulsive behavior involves a different region of the brain, and when you exercise control it uses a different region of the brain. It’s almost like a tussle inside of a person.”
But surprisingly for Asirvatham, the study showed that those who are overweight, or chronically fall into patterns of over-eating, actually practice more restraint than many others who don’t struggle in the same way.
“Those who are eating a lot are actually impulsive, which is what we would expect, but they are also showing that they are the ones who are exercising more restraint,” Asirvatham said. “Which means there is a bigger battle between these two brain regions among those who are eating more.”
While this neurological battle is frustrating for many people, it changes the way the topic of over-eating is handled and discussed. Simply depending on more self-control does not fix the problem, as the element of control is already in place.
“If you are just looking at one thing in those who are eating more, then it seems like you have to tell them to practice more self-control, but that’s not the story here,” Asirvatham said. “The story is that they are trying, but they are giving up.”
Asirvatham believes other practices, such as setting up internal rules for one’s behavior, is more successful in bringing lasting results. Generally, people will follow rules and boundary lines. If a certain individual tends to be more impulsive in social settings, making rules before the food options come up, such as which foods are off limits or resisting extra servings, can lead to greater impulse control in that specific situation.
Fast-food restaurants are only a small factor in impulse control
A common thought in solving the food battle is to reduce the amount of easily available food options, such as fast-food restaurants, so people have fewer opportunities to eat impulsively. While this is a reasonable alternative, researchers have wondered if it would make a true difference, or if people would find other occasions to overeat.
If the problem is controlling external impulses, then reducing easily accessible food options, such as unhealthy restaurants and bakeries, might make a difference, Asirvatham explained. But if the impulse comes from an internal emotional element, reducing those accessible food options won’t make a big difference.
Besides being driven by sheer impulse, people also make unhealthy food decisions based on their internal emotional state. Asirvatham found that if a person is solely motivated by seeing food and impulsively acting towards it, then decreasing fast-food restaurants might make a difference. But if a person is motivated by internal emotions, reducing food options would not change the outcome.
“In a sense, it doesn’t matter if there is a fast-food restaurant nearby,” Asirvatham said. “They are just going to go buy that food from the store.”
Asirvatham also found that women tend to be more emotionally impulsive, so they tend to eat more based on how they feel, while men are more externally impulsive, so they tend to eat more based on what is immediately available. This could be an important key for making individualized health goals and plans.
Research helpful for physicians and doctors
Asirvatham’s goal for this research is to help doctors and physicians better understand and address over-eating and weight issues with their patients. Broad statements encouraging patients to practice more control do not deal with the root issue, and are usually not successful.
“The way to help is not just general prescription of ‘don’t buy this or consume more vegetables,’ but more specific,” Asirvatham said.
Asirvatham hopes the study will help doctors individually understand their patients, and build a health plan that is unique for each individual’s needs.