Is your personality making you overeat?

a recipe for emotional overeating?

In yet another chapter in the effort to blame something besides calories for our obesity epidemic, we have the recent headline “Is your personality making you put on pounds?”  This report focuses on research published last year.  The study spanned 50+ years, which is remarkable enough, and measured thousands of data points for almost 2000 subjects.  The goal was to compare BMI and fatness with personality traits.

Results: high levels of neuroticism and low levels of conscientiousness were highly associated with BMI and obesity.  Impulsivity had the strongest relationship of all.   It was also related to the greatest increase in BMI over adult life.

In other words, people who experience more negative emotions, and who are disorganized and undisciplined were more likely to be obese.  And this link starts at an early age.  Another recent study of toddlers suggests that poor quality emotional relationships between mother and child increase that child’s risk for obesity.  If the mother fits into the neurotic/impulsive behavior group, she may pass that behavior pattern on to her child.  Children are great modelers of adult behaviors.

What does this mean for the average person trying to lose weight?  Does your personality cause you to gain weight?  Well, it may cause you to eat more than you need, which will put on weight.  Using food as a reward, or to self-medicate when anxious or stressed is a common reason for binge eating and weight gain.  Impulsive undisciplined people aren’t likely to think through a situation and conclude that they really don’t need to inhale 4 candy bars; they’re just eating them because they’re angry or bored or lonely.  Eating to squash unpleasant emotions is a learned behavior, and the foods chosen are usually junky high calorie sweets or processed carbs, that give a quick boost to calming brain chemicals.  Who binges on salad or apples?

If you fit this pattern, you aren’t doomed to spend the rest of your life as a victim of emotions.  A therapist skilled in working with disordered eating and inappropriate stress responses can help you learn better coping skills.  This isn’t a quick fix by any means, but over time, if you stick with the therapy and work on the issues, you can be successful at overcoming these destructive behaviors.

In the meantime, some other food and nutrition tips can help:

  1. Keep known trigger foods OUT of your home and work place.
  2. Exercise!  The beneficial effects of regular vigorous exercise help those calming brain chemicals.
  3. Include high protein foods at all meals.  You don’t need massive portions, just normal amounts.
  4. Avoid all meals or snacks that are high sugar/high refined carb.  This is especially key at breakfast, or your first meal of the day.
  5. If your schedule permits it, establish eating times 3-4 times/day and stick to the schedule.  No between-meal eating, period.  If you get hungry, it means you’ve burned up the meal you ate earlier — a good thing if you’re trying to lose weight.  Sometimes it helps mentally if you just put the brakes on eating opportunities, rather than leaving yourself open to whatever stray food catches your eye at random times.  Just Say No.  While this might sound hard, it can actually be liberating – you don’t have to think about food other than at your established meal time.  Plus if you’ve got one of those undisciplined personalities, this will be a great motivating achievement – you’ve created some personal discipline and you’re sticking to it.

Finally, if you hang out with people who exhibit these impulsive eating behaviors, and who drag you into that spiral, find new people to hang out with.  It’s extremely hard to create your own better food and coping habits, if everyone around you is sabotaging your efforts.

For more tips on personality types and coping mechanisms, check out the original Wall Street Journal article (subscription required).


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