Why Is Impulsivity Important For Obesity And Why We Should Be Aware Of It

Everybody has a different attitude towards food. Some experience (extreme) pleasure when they’re presented with particularly appetizing food, while others couldn’t care less. This reaction towards appetizing food, together with a personality trait called impulsivity, are two factors with (probably) huge implications in the obesity crisis.

A few decades ago, when the amount of processed food was lower and food didn’t accompany us on every step, people who were impulsive had less to worry about. When you don’t have a certain food item available, it’s also less likely you will eat it, impulsive or not (duh).

However, in the modern day and age, we’re bombarded with messages and commercials about food, we have the feeling food follows us around everywhere we go. With that in mind, it’s also harder to resist or say no to food, especially for people who are impulsive.

You might ask why is this important? Well, the drastic increases in obesity in the last decades are a consequence of multiple factors. One (main) is an increase in the average amount of food being eaten. This has risen by around 500 calories in the past four decades. That’s a lot. And it’s a no-brainer, people have become and are becoming obese because of it.

However, just pointing out there has been an increase of 500 calories per day for the average person in Western society is the result. What we should be looking at are the causes for this increase.

A staggeringly high and steady availability of foods, which are highly desirable for us from an evolutionary standpoint, is certainly one of the main reasons which lead to that increase in the first place.

But there’s another important thing to understand here. This change has been coupled with an ever-more advanced marketing scheme, exploiting all the human weaknesses one could imagine.

Again, this is where impulsivity will come in.

Statistically speaking, the majority of diets fail – if you start on a diet you’re more likely to stay at the same weight or even gain some in the long run than to actually lose it. Often, this isn’t a consequence of people not being informed about healthy dietary choices, it’s a result of us being creatures of habit and doing what we’re used to doing. And eating foods which we’re used to eating is one of them.

The majority of health gurus like to emphasize this or that superfood and how it’s the last frontier against fighting obesity. Or how a certain specific diet is better than the other. And yes, I’m even talking about the paleo and low-carb, high-fat diets.

For the majority of people, it doesn’t work like that in the long run, sadly. Very few evidence-based blogs (I’m guessing they are out there, I’m just not familiar with any) address the issue of compliance in these studies more thoroughly. You often hear about the end results of a particular study where a particular diet reigned supreme over another. And don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Eating a plant-based diet with a lot of different vegetables, a little less fruits, meats, eggs, dairy, grains, and nuts, is completely fine. This IS a healthy diet and it’s sure to lead to weight loss and an improvement in quality of life.

However, when you have a study which lasted four weeks and it has 400 participants, with 150 dropping out during the study, it should raise some alarms.

Yes, the study does get to answer its primary question: the health implications of a certain diet. But it misses the bigger picture. How many of the remaining 250 participants will stick to the diet after 2 years if 150 of them had dropped out in less than four weeks?

If I’m very honest, in one of the first articles I’ve written for this page, you can get a very good evidence-based overview on what to eat and what not to eat. It provides you with enough knowledge how to change your dietary habits to lose weight. It’s really that simple. And at the same time it isn’t.

Not because you won’t have the necessary knowledge about how to change what you eat into something healthier. It’s because you’re a creature of habit. Simply put: there’s a high chance of you not being able to stick to these changes in the long run. Even if you’re adding minuscule and manageable tweaks over time, there is always a possibility of relapsing back. I used the word relapsing on purpose, I explain why in the next paragraph.

I’ve covered food addiction to some extent on this page as well. There is surging evidence on how a typical Western diet leads to addiction-like changes in our brain when presented with particularly appealing food which I’ve mentioned before. One study even noted rats preferred sugar over cocaine, I’ll repeat: when rats could choose between administration of sugar and cocaine, they preferred the former.

But ok, we’re not rats. However, it’s an interesting food for thought (pun intended).

This is an important aspect because it acts in synergy with impulsivity. When you’re addicted to food, or even have addiction-like symptoms, you will want and crave the foods you’re addicted to, there’s no question about it.

Consider the following scenario. You like eating a small chocolate bar every day, you know, just for energy. You do this for one year straight. Then you decide to stop. After a week you go to the supermarket to buy groceries and you feel a craving while you’re waiting to pay. You realize you’re surrounded with 20 kinds of chocolate bars.

  • What do you do if you’re highly impulsive and what do you do if you’re not impulsive?

Another interesting phenomenon is the effect of social eating or eating with other people. We tend to differ how much we want to eat when others are around us. Many reasons lead to this, and there’s no point in stating all of them here. In general though, there are three distinct groups, some people eat more when in presence of others, some eat less, and others seem to be unaffected.

So when we take all of this in account:

  • Social factors when eating
  • A brain addicted to food or with addiction-like changes
  • Unhealthy eating habits stemming out of our childhood
  • An over stimulating environment with a multitude of desirable choices
  • Different personality traits which further exacerbate this
  • The possibility of misinformation about what is healthy

We get a plethora of factors modulating what we actually do eat eventually. And all of this can be mostly attributed to impulsivity in the long run.

The above example with the chocolate bar and the supermarket serves as a great example of impulsivity, if you’re more impulsive you will buy it and eat it without second guessing your choice. If you aren’t impulsive you will think about it first and then decide whether you actually do need to buy it or not. High impulsivity is also connected to low inhibition; you’re have a very low threshold for doing things which you want to do, and vice-versa. It’s worth noting here I’m simplifying rather complex concepts in single sentences.

And now imagine how this is reflected when you eat. You’re constantly presented with different choices what to eat, especially if you’re eating with other people a lot. You have to make a conscious decision every time, or at least the majority of times, to eat something healthy. And you need to do this until you die. Sounds hard doesn’t it?

Personality can be changed very minimally. Therefore, just by knowing this and being aware of this issue you’re a step closer to helping yourself and achieving your goals.

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.