You Are Where You Eat

In dealing with obesity, it may be that healthy choices are overrated. Where you eat — healthy environments — may be more important than resolving to make healthy choices. How can this be? In a recent interview with NPR, psychologist David Neal explains:

Once a behavior had been repeated a lot, especially if the person does it in the same setting, you can successfully change what people want to do. But if they’ve done it enough, their behavior doesn’t follow their intentions. People, when they perform a behavior a lot — especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting — outsource the control of the behavior to the environment.

A study of heroin addiction among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam illustrates just how powerful a change in environmental cues can be. Soldiers due to return were screened for heroin use and those who tested positive were required to complete a treatment program before they could return home. Three years later more than 90% of the soldiers treated in this way were still drug-free. Those results contrast sharply with 90% relapse rates for addicts who used heroin in the U.S. and were treated here. A key difference was the change in the environment. When soldiers returned home after treatment, the cues for heroin use — that were all around in Vietnam — were gone.

Likewise, evidence for the importance of food cues in over-consumption continues to build. A new study in Appetite shows that food cues can drive people to seek and consume more food, even when they are highly satiated.

In another new study, published in NeuroImage, researchers found that food cues consistently activate parts of the brain associated with appetite in both children and adults. Such research is driving a deeper understanding of how food cues can lead to over-consumption of food and thus obesity.

So if you spend the day in an office with lots of food cues everywhere you turn, just making up your mind to make healthier choices at mealtime might not matter. Food cues that surround you all day long will tend to win.

Employers who profess to care about wellness should take heed. Some, such as Google, already have.

Click here to read more from NPR, here to read the study of food cues in Appetite, here to read the study in NeuroImage, and here to read more from USA Today about office food cues.

EAT, photograph © Gexydaf / flickr

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