Losing weight is simple: Eat less and exercise more. Why is that so difficult for so many people is embedded deep in the human psyche. A growing body of research is finding intriguing connections between personality traits and habits that can lead to obesity. The same parts of the brain that control emotions and stress response also govern appetite, several studies have shown. Early life experiences also set the stage for overeating years later, researchers have found.
Those who scored high on neuroticism- the tendency to easily experience negative emotions- and low on conscientiousness, or being organized and disciplined, were the most likely to be over weight and obese. Impulsivity was strongly linked to BMI, too: The subjects in the top 10% of impulsivity weighed, on average, 24 pounds more then those in the lowest 10%. People who rated themselves low on “agreeableness” were the most likely to gain weight over the years. The study was published in July in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The link between emotions, food and weight control starts at a very early age. Toddlers who had low quality emotional relationships with their mothers are more than twice as likely to be obese at age 15 as those who have closer bonds, according to a study of 1977 children funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Diet coaches, nutritionist and cognitive-behavioral therapist have long warned against eating for emotional reasons and urged people who overeat to identify eating triggers. Untangling emotions about food may seem daunting, but some therapists say it can be effective in the long run. You don’t have to change your whole personality. You just need to change your thinking, which allows you to change your behavior. Several personality traits and behavior patterns set people up for weight gain, sometimes without their knowledge:
The Night Owl
Unless they have the luxury of sleeping late, night owls are often sleep deprived. That drives down levels of leptin, the hormone that signals fullness, and drives up ghrelin, the hormone that fuels appetite, particularly for high carbohydrate, high calorie food, numerous studies show. Even short-term sleep deprivation can make health people process sugar as if they were diabetic, according to research from the University of Chicago. Night owls also tend to skip, or sleep through, breakfast, missing an important chance to get their metabolism going early, and often snack far into the night. That sets the stage for “night eating syndrome,” when people consume a significant portion of their daily intake after dinner, which is associated with obesity and diabetes.
The fix: Shifting one’s biological clock is tricky. Start by foregoing caffeine after noon, keeping lights, TV and other electronics low in the evening and scheduling can’t-miss appointments very early. Or simply declare the kitchen off limits after 9 p.m. staying up late may lose some of its appeal.
The Stress Junkie
People who thrive on competition and deadline pressure may seem high-powered, but what powers them internally are adrenaline and cortisol. Those stress hormones supply quick burst of energy in fight-or-flight situations, but when the alarm is unrelenting, they can cause health problems, including obesity. Cortisol stimulates a brain chemical called neuropeptide Y, which boost carbohydrate cravings. It also makes the body churn out excess insulin and accumulate fat, particularly in the belly where it raises the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other diseases. People who feel chronically stressed often use food for energy and comfort and rationalize that they’ve earned it.
The fix: One of the best ways to burn off excess cortisol is exercise, and almost anything that pampers, distracts, or relaxes you can serve as a reward.
The Mindless Multitasker
People who habitually work, read, drive, watch TV or do anything while dining often eat more then they realize. Anything that takes our focus off the food makes us more likely to overeat without knowing it.
The fix: Keep track of everything you eat for several days, then make a commitment to only eat sitting down, giving the food your full attention. Eat slowly. Put your fork down and assess your fullness level between every bite. You will likely eat far less without ever trying to diet.
People who constantly put other people’s needs ahead of their own often become emotionally depleted and seek solace in eating. Food works because it’s close, it doesn’t require burdening others, and it signals comfort and love. But because it doesn’t really fill the emotional void that givers have, they keep eating more and more.
Some “givers” also live in fear of disappointing other people or engaging in conflict, so they try to stifle their own feelings with food.
The fix: Set reasonable limits on your time and energy; identify your frustrated yearnings and find new ways to take care of yourself. Venting unpleasant emotions in a journal or in the mirror will diffuse them faster than food.
Like givers, people who drive themselves to be perfect often use food to relieve the pressure. Many set themselves up for failure with impossible weight and fitness goals. Bariatric surgeons say they a high correlation between perfectionism and obesity; experts in eating disorders say perfectionism is often at the root of anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating. Many perfectionists also engage in all-or-nothing thinking that leads them to get discouraged easily with dieting and seek solace in food.
The fix: Try to set realistic goals; strive for progress, not perfection, and remember that many people are loved just as much for their flaws as for their best attributes.