Samara Serotkin, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist
We have all heard the alarming stats: Obesity is on the rise with more than 1/3 of American adults considered obese and almost 17% of our countrys youth falling into that category. This growing problem has historically been an issue for nutritionists and dieticians to focus on, with physicians stepping into the mix more and more. Now, there is another group stepping into the battle against obesity: psychologists.
The American Psychological Association (APA) recently announced an initiative to develop evidence-based practice guidelines for psychologists to address obesity. A recent article in USA Today highlighted this fact, reviewing some of the psychological factors that may be contributing to the obesity epidemic. Some of the psychological factors contributing to excess weight include:
- Increased food variety. Research shows that when people are given more variety in their food options, they tend to actually eat more. One possible reason for this is that the first few bites of a food tend to be the most rewarding, but as we get used to the taste we get less pleasure out of it. Think of what happens when you eat at a buffet, or at Thanksgiving dinner.
- Aggressive marketing techniques from Big Food. Just like the strategies used by the tobacco industry, food marketing designers are well versed in psychological research about how to influence peoples choices.
Weight bias. When people feel like they are being stigmatized for their weight, they tend to engage in more unhealthy eating habits. This issue of weight bias is pervasive in our culture.
- Food addiction. There is increasing evidence that people can actually become addicted to food, much like drugs or alcohol. While this idea remains controversial, there is a growing body of evidence supporting it.
- Family influences. Everything from women getting pregnant at older ages to the loss of family mealtime in our overly-busy schedules has been shown to promote excess weight gain.
I can particularly relate to this last one. As a parent of a child who is just developing lifelong eating habits, I see how poor habits can be learned early on. I see so many parents letting their toddlers bring food wherever they go, offering them snacks whenever their child starts to get fussy. While I can see how this makes sense to a stressed out parent in the moment, it teaches emotional eating at a very young age!
In addition, technologys influence on our lives has increased dramatically over the last 30 years, along with the rise in obesity in our country. We are beginning to explore ways in which technology may be influencing obesity. One way may be just the decrease in physical activity people are engaging in as they spend more and more time sitting in front of a screen. They may also be doing more mindless eating while watching TV or surfing the web. The USA Today article also points out that this increase in technology use has led to a sense of always feeling available to others and their demands, which can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. This can lead to us turning to food to replenish our fuel, whether or not it is really what we need.
Given all of these psychological factors that might be contributing to obesity, what can you do to overcome them? Here are some ideas:
- Be a responsible consumer. Educate yourself about healthy eating and always be skeptical of marketing efforts from companies trying to sell you foods. They dont necessarily have your best interests in mind.
- When facing a wide variety of foods to select from, try to narr