Does Poor Self-Control Lead to Obesity?

Self-control is an often overlooked concept in the “healthy eating industry”. Most known blogs have already adopted the mentality that sometimes, giving advice on what someone should eat is simply not enough as a viable solution in the long run.

We come in all sizes and shapes, and this holds true for our personalities as well. Some people just have worse self-control that others. When talking about poor self-control and other psychological aspects of eating, we must familiarize ourselves with three distinct behaviors which can lead to obesity in people, despite efforts to eat healthy.

These three include:

  • Restrained eating
  • Emotional eating
  • External eating

Emotional eating

I’ve talked about emotional eating before; it’s basically your inclination to eat as a consequence of unpleasant emotional states. You would be considered as an emotional eater if you would try to cope with loneliness, depression, sadness, and other similar states with the help of food. The main reason why this is an unhealthy way of helping yourself and solving your problems is because it provides only a short-term relief. The root of the problem still persists.

 

External eating

Then we have external eating. This is your tendency to eat more when you’re presented with food which smells, looks, and tastes very good. Believe it or not, people differ on this characteristic a lot. Some are heavily influenced by this and are more prone to eating bigger amounts of food when they are presented with really nice looking food, while others seem to not care at all how their food looks and will eat around the same amount of it, regardless of its appeal and looks.

 

Restrained eating

Restrained eating is somewhat similar to external eating. If you would be considered as a restrained eater, then you would consciously decide to eat less in order to control body weight or just to lose weight. For example: if we had two people who would differ on how restrained they are when it comes to eating, the one with more restraint would consume a lot less food in a social setting, while the other one would show much less restraint and eat a bigger amount, despite both having the same goal of losing or maintaining their body weight.

And these three psychological characteristics, which are common to all of us, can have an incredible effect on the amount of food and food choices throughout the day. Being aware of them is one of the key steps in avoiding falling into the traps they can pose for certain people.

 

How does this affect me?

Studies so far show that both emotional and external eating are more common in overweight people. Moreover, they are associated with increased amounts of unhealthy food consumption. Food such as sweets and ice-cream. [1, 2, 3, 4]

Restrained eaters, on the other hand, seem to eat healthier foods, are more likely to have a normal bodyweight, and seem to increase the amount of restraint when it comes to food if they are unsuccessful in their weight loss attempt. What I would like to point out is that a simple difference in people’s restraint has huge implications for weight loss, regardless whether you eat healthy or unhealthy. [4, 5, 6]

But there is a caveat here. Some research suggests that people who are overly restrictive when it comes to eating usually end up with severe food cravings and even overeating [7]. This is sort of logical to be honest. When you’re continuously being restrictive in a social setting, it implies you’re trying to make a conscious effort to develop healthier eating habits, as well as eat less food in general when presented with it. The problem arises, however, when you’re being restrictive, yet you’re not losing any weight. This can lead to lower psychological functioning. [8]

 

Your personality plays a big role as well

That is only one part of the puzzle though. The mentioned characteristics are somewhat specific as far as psychological functioning goes. Which is why we have to connect them to the Big Five. The Big five (extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness) are basic* human personality characteristics which give us insights into a vast array of life related outcomes.

* the word “basic” can be greatly argued though.

Neuroticism for one, is clearly linked to emotional eating. Neuroticism is regarded as your tendency to perceive your environment as more threatening. What I mean by that is, someone who scores highly on neuroticism will interpret the same events in a more negative way, will have a higher chance of overanalyzing them, and they will be more likely to cause stress for that person. Moreover, it’s characterized as a tendency towards experiencing unpleasant emotional states more often. With that said, it comes to no surprise that people who score highly on neuroticism are also more susceptible to emotional eating.

Neuroticism can be further broken down into its specific subdomains. One of these – impulsiveness, is actually the one which is most frequently found in emotional eaters and external eaters. And this is self explanatory, someone who is impulsive has less control over his planned actions, and can resist desires, cravings, or urges, with less success. This goes hand in hand with eating more food when feeling down, as it’s hard to resist an urge which immediately satisfies your current condition, or just eating more food when being presented with a lot of it in different settings.

In general, obese people seem to be more impulsive and are more affected by negative emotional states and are more often considered to be emotional eaters as well. [9, 10, 11]

With all that said, we can see how certain personality characteristics affect your eating behavior by themselves. None of this had anything to do with eating healthy or unhealthy. Being predispositioned because you’re a certain personality type can be a big contributor to your eating behavior, being aware of these connections and influences is a big part in optimal eating behavior as well.

For those who would like to foud out whether they are emotional eaters, here is a good questionnaire which can give you a good idea and a chance to self-reflect:

Emotional Eating Questionnaire

About Author

Sebastijan Veselic

BSc in Psychology, currently doing a MSc in Cognitive science. Pursuing and interested in many academic and scientific disciplines and topics, as well as some less so. These include, but are not limited to, cute cats on the internet.

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