Pessimism and Loneliness as Obesity Villains

Bronze Early Human

Billi Gordon Ph.D., popularizer of neuroscience, is acutely aware of the problems holidays, as well the rest of the year, can bring to compulsive overeaters and addicts of every kind. Even in a crowd, loneliness can attack. Sometimes, it comes from missing a particular person, but there are probably a hundred circumstances that can trigger the perception of isolation.

We have heard a lot about the reptilian brain that still lives in all of us, taking care of basic functions like respiration, heart rate, balance, and body temperature. Gordon explains that evolutionary mechanisms are also buried deep in the “old mammal brain,” particularly in an area known as the Ventral Tegmantal Area, or VTA, which “monitors the satisfaction of our vital needs such as breeding, social bonding and feeding.”

The Gullible and Trigger-Happy VTA

Apparently the VTA is easily fooled, which is understandable, because it is not equipped to cope with the unrelenting bombardment of stimuli served up by modern life. Why is the perception of isolation so upsetting? Because separation from the group equals vulnerability and potentially death: there’s nobody to mate with; no mammoth-hunting companions; nobody to watch your back when enemies come over the hill. Even without the presence of a subjective threat, isolation “reads” as crisis.

Loneliness may not even be “real” in the conventional sense. It could just as easily be a misperception, the kind that a little bit of therapy could banish. But the old mammal brain doesn’t know the difference. All it knows is, there is pain, and unfortunately, pain warps the perception even more. The conviction of isolation feels bad and makes a person want some dopamine, and substance abusers, including food addicts, know how to get it—from their substance of choice. Gordon says:

…The key is to remember, unless you are alone in lunar space tracking station, isolation is most often a correctable perception. The key to removing unhealthy habits is removing the reasons you have them.

We have seen that when the favored team loses a sporting event, its supporters look for solace in fats and junk food. When their team wins, they give themselves a break and load up on grub that is, if not impressively healthful, at least not quite as bad as the choices made by the losing team’s fanbase.

It has long been recognized that people who feel bad will eat comfort food, but University of Delaware associate professor Meryl Gardner and three co-authors from various institutions wanted to gain a deeper understanding of why that was so. Figuring out what lies behind preferences for different types and qualities of food might take them halfway there. Journalist Kathryn Meier reports:

To get at the “why,” the researchers married the theories of affective regulation (how people react to their moods and emotions) and temporal construal (the perspective of time) to explain food choice.

Those concepts are gone into in much greater detail in Meier’s piece. It would be advantageous if people could make better food choices, regardless of their emotional states. Why, exactly, does a person in a good mood choose raisins, while a person in a bad mood chooses chocolate?

It seems that stress eating might involve more than simple emotion. A person’s degree of optimism or pessimism probably affects his or her eating habits. In a positive mood, Gardner suggests, a person might be thinking about the future, in a more abstract frame of mind that would allow for caution and moderation. Maybe instead of that happening randomly, intentionality can make a difference. Before ordering a pizza, a deliberate reminder of how that will affect one’s weight loss goals could inspire a change of plan. Gardner is quoted:

If people in a bad mood typically choose to eat foods that have an immediate, indulgent reward, it might be more effective to encourage what we call mood repair motivation, or calling their attention to more innocuous ways to enhance their mood. Instead of looking at nutrition and warning labels, try talking to friends or listening to music.

Of course, a lot would depend on the friends. If they are wizards of fatlogic, never mind.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Truth about Loneliness.” PsychologyToday.com, 12/29/14
Source: “_Foods and moods.” udel.edu, 02/12/14
Image by mrgarethm

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