When Impulses Strike in Obesity

A simple fact of our food environment is that food cues surround us daily. Those food cues may prompt impulses to have a quick bite to eat. And different people respond differently to those impulses. Emerging evidence suggests that impulsivity plays a role in obesity risk. And new research published in Appetite suggests that it may play a role in treating obesity more or less effectively.

Impulsiveness: Character or Characteristic?

As a scientific pursuit, impulsivity is rapidly developing. The intersection of behavior science and brain science is bringing new insight to the source of impulsive behaviors. It’s a familiar pattern. A person acts seemingly on a whim. Planning, reflection, or consideration of where the action will lead is scarce. Bad outcomes are the typical markers of impulsivity. When quick actions lead to good outcomes, we call it boldness or courage.

Impulsivity has biological roots and links to personality. It’s an important feature of a whole range of disorders: ADHD, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, and others. It can surface after a brain injury or disease.

Tailoring Obesity Care to Account for Impulsivity

The new research in Appetite was a randomized, controlled study of weight outcomes for two different kinds of  obesity treatment – standard behavioral treatment (SBT) and acceptance-based behavioral treatment (ABT). Better self-regulation skills is one of the goals of ABT.

In this study, the objective was to test the effectiveness of these two different treatment approaches in people with high or low impulsivity. The researchers found that more impulsive people lost less weight. But in the ABT group, outcomes were better for the more impulsive people than they were in the SBT group.

These are preliminary data. ABT is still a work in progress. But obesity is clearly a condition that is different for different people. And the prospect of evidence-based, personalized obesity care is something worth cheering.

Click here for the study in Appetite and here for more on ABT.

Strike, photograph © Scott Butner / flickr

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March 14, 2017