In Virtue/Vice, Dr. Christine B. Whelan blogs about news, books, scientific and psychological research and her general musings about virtue and vice in our everyday lives.
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The Psychology of Obesity
Dr Jason Halford tells MedicalNewsToday
Anti-obesity drugs haven’t successfully tackled the wider issues of obesity because they’ve been focused predominantly on weight loss. Obesity is the result of many motivational factors that have evolved to encourage us to eat, not least our susceptibility to the attractions of food and the pleasures of eating energy rich foods – factors which are, of course, all too effectively exploited by food manufacturers.
As psychological factors are critical to the development of obesity, drug companies should take them into consideration when designing new drug therapies. We’ve learned a great deal about the neurochemical systems that govern processes like the wanting and liking of food, and it’s time to exploit that knowledge to help people manage their eating behaviour.
We all know that to lose weight we’ve got to eat less and exercise more: Calories in, calories out. But we’ve still got to eat something, and that’s where things get tricky. Psychologist George Ainslie has told us for years that it’s easier to control things when you can implement bright lines: Don’t smoke even one cigarette. Don’t drink even one alcoholic beverage. This is why the Atkins diet and other “bright line” strategies are so tempting… but they don’t work because us humans need a variety of different foods-in moderation!-in our diet. And moderation is where we always get tripped up.
Also, eating less may make you more slender, but weight may be a proxy for another desire, perhaps the desire to be attractive or appear virtuous, and there is certainly no guarantee of that outcome. (For more on this, check out Prelec and Bonder’s essay in Time and Decision — but I’ll warn you, it’s not a light read.)
Plus, just like the act of smoking, eating has a social aspect-and is often used as a response to emotional cues, rather than real hunger.
The psychology of dieting is a big old mess. But it’s good to see folks in medical research who are acknowledging the psychological causes of obesity as well — because that’s the first step toward addressing problem as a whole.