It is something we see on an almost daily basis: someone being shamed for their weight, called lazy and told they need to change their lifestyle.
Dr. Steven Woltering, an educational psychology professor in Texas A&M University’s College of Education & Human Development, and his graduate student Lucy Chen, say obesity is not just a lifestyle problem. They say it is important to also look at how people are processing information and control their thoughts and emotion.
“Obesity is not like lung cancer and smoking. It’s not like there’s one clear thing that causes a particular syndrome. There are multiple things at multiple levels,” Woltering said. “We’re not denying that genetics plays a role, we’re not denying the fact that we have a society that markets the fast food industry. We know it all plays a role. But we want to focus on the self-regulation part. It’s the one part you can actually control yourself.”
Obesity is a nationwide public health concern and the numbers continue to rise. One out of three adults and one out of every five children are considered obese. The percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled in the last 40 years.
Many researchers have studied how self-regulation plays a role in adolescent obesity. They’ve found a relationship between deficits in self-regulation to increased caloric intake, elevated body weight and failure in weight reduction programs.
While there are many obesity intervention studies, Woltering, who serves as the head of the Neurobiological Lab for Learning and Development (NLD) located within the Department of Educational Psychology, points to the fact that little research has looked at self-regulation and obesity from a neuroscientific perspective.
“You can know you need to go to the gym if you want to be healthy, but’s a completely different ballgame to actually do something about it,” Woltering said. “Why don’t you do it? That’s the issue we’re trying to figure out.”
In Woltering and Chen’s first study, as hypothesized, adolescents with obesity showed deficits at both a behavioral and neural level. They also found adolescents with obesity showed lower self-efficacy, or belief in his or her ability to control eating behaviors, in challenging situations.
The research also found that adolescents may be more vulnerable to obesity and binge eating behaviors because of deficient inhibitory control, or the ability to control impulse responses and respond with reasoning.
This research is personal for Chen. When she was an adolescent, she was obese and admits she was bullied by her peers. When she started graduate school, she wanted to focus on obesity and find answers to help others. She has taught herself to make better decisions based on findings in her research.
“There are two levels of brain processing. One is more automatic and impulsive. The second takes more time to process and is more rational,” Chen said. “For me, if you can step back and then let your rational processing step in, then you will be more likely to make more rational decisions in terms of those kinds of food stimulus.”
Woltering and Chen have plans to further their research on adolescents and obesity. The next step is looking at attentional bias and whether those with obesity have attentional bias to high-calorie food. They want to know if high-calorie foods are more attractive to those with obesity than those without.
While no recommendations were developed with this first step in their research, Woltering and Chen hope future researchers will focus more on studying, from a neural and behavioral perspective, how we could improve self-regulation.