Health & Environment

How Our Attention Is Affected By Food

New research from a Texas A&M behavior expert found a connection between body mass index and distraction by food.
By Justin Elizalde, Texas A&M University College of Education & Human Development May 11, 2021

Cropped Hands With Various Ice Cream In Containers
While one person’s attention may be grabbed by an ice cream store, says behavior expert Steven Woltering, their partner may not even notice it while walking by.

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In a recent study of obese adolescents, Texas A&M University behavior expert Steven Woltering found that body mass affects how distracted you are by food, and how long it takes you to refocus after that distraction.

Woltering is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology in the College of Education & Human Development. He studies self-regulation, or the ability to control your attention and emotions, which is crucial for developing reasoning and emotional awareness. His recent study observed the attention-blink paradigm — a pause in the brain’s ability to “see” or notice its surroundings when stimulated by things that hold high value to us.

“Imagine yourself strolling through a busy shopping mall during the summer with your partner,” Woltering said. “Whether you like it or not, your attention may be grabbed by an ice cream store, whereas your partner may not even notice those sweet and refreshing delicacies.”

He said the attention blink can be short, but the more important the stimulus, the longer the blink lasts.

Food was used as the stimulus in this research. Woltering and his team observed 40 adolescents ranging from normal weight to obese according to their body mass index.

The participants, who were monitored through a net of electrodes, were shown a series of 17 images of items such as a chair or a knife and then an image of a high-calorie food such as a burger. They were then asked to identify the image that came after the food.

Findings show the higher in body mass the adolescent was, the longer it took for them to notice the next image after they were shown the food.

Woltering said the key purpose of this study is to better understand how unhealthy food habits are developed and maintained in an effort to fully understand how a condition, such as obesity, can affect a person. The goal would then be to develop an effective treatment.

“We believe a holistic perspective can lead to a more comprehensive understanding — one that does not just focus on the metabolic processes but also examines the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms, such as those related to attentional control,” he said.

The research was funded by the Transforming Lives grant from the College of Education and Human Development to study the issue of adolescent obesity.

If left uncontrolled, Woltering said obesity can lead to health problems in the adolescents’ adult lives, such as diabetes and heart disease as well as self-esteem issues and other social problems.

This article by Justin Elizalde originally appeared on the College of Education & Human Development website.

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