Insecurity May Contribute to Obesity
Researchers studying food behavior have identified a crucial element in overeating.
Disinhibited eating is a pattern of behavior that involves eating too quickly and a repeated lack of success when dieting. Many studies show it is linked to higher body mass index (BMI), and is a strong risk factor for overweight and obesity.
This tendency to overeat can occur in a variety of circumstances, such as when an individual is presented with an array of palatable foods or is under emotional distress.
Now, PhD student Laura L. Wilkinson and her team at the University of Bristol, U.K., have investigated the psychological origins of disinhibited eating. The topic has “received scant attention,” they write in the International Journal of Obesity.
However, “relative to other psychological variables, disinhibited eating is the single best predictor of BMI,” they report, “and this relationship is evident in groups with different socioeconomic status, weight history and dieting status. Importantly, disinhibited eating predicts future weight gain, suggesting that it has a causal role in overweight and obesity.”
The team decided to focus on adult attachment styles as a potential explanation for disinhibited eating. A person’s attachment style reflects the quality of bonding in early life, and is believed to remain stable throughout adulthood. “It describes a representational model of personal relationships and reflects early-life interactions with primary caregivers,” write the authors.
Four styles of attachment have been identified in adults: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant, and fearful-avoidant. Previously, the three insecure attachment styles have been linked to other manifestations of disinhibited behavior, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, substance abuse and sexual promiscuity.
This has been explained as differences in the need for external emotional regulation, that is, a behavior or substance that alters a person’s emotional state by promoting calm, distraction or excitement. In other words, individuals who are more anxious tend to rely on external factors for emotional control.
The researchers looked at whether attachment style influences the tendency to engage in disinhibited eating. They recruited 200 adults with a mean age of 22 years, whose BMIs ranged from 17 to 41. Measures of disinhibition and attachment style were taken using the Three-Factor Eating Questionnaire (TFEQ) and the Experiences in Close Relationships (ECR) questionnaire.