People with an impulsive personality may be more likely to have a food addiction, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Georgia. Furthermore, those with higher levels of food addiction are more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI).
The study found that people exhibiting impulsive behavior weren’t necessarily overweight, but impulsivity was linked to a compulsive relationship with food and, as a result, less healthy weight.
Food addiction has been compared to addictive drug use. Studies have linked the dopamine release that occurs after tasting delicious food to the dopamine release that happens when people consume other addictive substances.
Impulsive behavior involves several personality traits. Two of these traits — known as negative urgency and lack of perseverance — were particularly associated with food addiction and high BMI during the study.
Negative urgency is characterized by the tendency to behave impulsively when experiencing negative emotions. For some, that means drinking alcohol or doing drugs. For others, it could mean eating to feel better.
Lack of perseverance is when a person has a hard time completing hard or boring tasks. People with a lack of perseverance might have a difficult time following through with attempts to change addictive eating behaviors, which could also cause an overweight or obese BMI.
Impulsivity might be one reason why some people eat in an addictive way despite motivation to lose weight, said Dr. Ashley Gearhardt, a clinical psychologist who helped develop the Yale Food Addiction Scale.
“One of the key hallmarks of addiction is impulsivity,” said Gearhardt, now an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.
“We were theorizing that if food addiction is really a thing, then our measure [the Yale Food Addiction Scale] should be related to impulsive action.”
Clinical psychologist Dr. James MacKillop, whose lab was behind the study, believes that therapies used to treat addictive drug behaviors could help people who suffer from addictive eating habits.
“Most of the programs for weight loss at this point focus on the most obvious things, which are clearly diet and exercise,” MacKillop said. “It seems like craving management or managing acute desires to eat would have a natural fit within the domain of skills a person would need to eat healthily.”