Proposed Obesity Villains – Distraction, Variety, and Odors

chilli hot chocolateChildhood Obesity News mentioned one pioneering study on distraction as it affects appetite. The University of Liverpool study that we discuss today is a different kind, a meta-study that curated and collated the results of more than 20 previous studies. As expected, it showed that people who eat when their attention is distracted do not appreciate the experience as much, and definitely don’t keep track of how much they consume. (This is especially true in the evening hours.)

The scariest finding was that distraction can lead a person to eat as much as 50% more than she or he otherwise would have. That means one and a half times as much. To consume 1,500 rather than 1,000 calories can make a significant difference to the personal “bottom line.” Kathleen Raven of Reuters says:

[Lead author Eric] Robinson and his colleagues…found 24 studies conducted between 1997 and 2011 that met their main criterion…All of the studies were tightly controlled and monitored, but each had different methods of manipulating participants’ attention and awareness…Robinson said these findings could be used, for instance, toward developing a mobile-phone “app” that prompts people to eat with more attention and awareness.

Of the 24 studies Robinson and his team looked at, 18 drew their data from college students. Consequently, the weakness in this research is that most of the subjects were normal-weight people barely out of their teens. Weight-loss programs based on behavioral therapy have included “practices similar to attentive eating” for many years, but if the present landscape is any indication, mindfulness may not be helping much.

On the other hand, humans are influenced by many factors that don’t even rise to the level of being noticed by the conscious mind, and subtleties are ignored at a price. Deborah Cohen, M.D. believes that one of these easily-discounted factors is the explosion of variety that assaults us in every commercial establishment. As a senior natural scientist at RAND Corporation, the public policy research center, she published A Big Fat Crisis—The Hidden Forces Behind the Obesity Epidemic—and How We Can End It.

No one needs—to use one of the author’s examples—36 flavors of toaster breakfast treats. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of evolution is that humans want more than just what they need. To help this process along, clever advertising copy writers convince people that infinite variety is what they need, deserve, are entitled to, and must demand on all occasions.

Tremendous stress is placed upon consumers. In the old days, the ice cream choices would be chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and maybe something really exotic like orange sherbet. Making a choice was relatively simple. Now, a person can easily justify picking up half a dozen different flavored pints. Once you’ve chosen two, it’s just as easy to add a few more, especially if there is a multiple-item discount. Besides, despite their alluring novelty, one or two of them might turn out to be duds. Book reviewer Susannah Cahalan says:

Even when people are offered different-looking shaped foods, they often eat more. In one study, people were offered the same pasta dish but with different types of pasta—spaghetti, macaroni and bow tie. Those who were offered all three shapes (again, same flavors), ate 14% more than those who did not.

Impulse is the enemy of disciplined eating, which is unfortunate because some food odors invade our neurological circuitry and activate the impulse centers in our brains. This disorder has been observed by a team at the Hospital Infantil de Mexico in a very small study involving 30 kids between 6 and 10 years of age. Half had BMIs in the normal range, and half were clinically obese. The report says:

The chocolate smell elicited significant brain connections in obese children, compared to the normal-weight children…The results showed that in the obese children, the food odors triggered activation in the areas of the brain associated with impulse and the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder while the areas associated with impulse control exhibited no activity….

A brain whose impulse control areas show no activity is a brain that will not cooperate willingly with efforts to achieve a healthy weight. Again, it may be a minor and subtle factor, but it seems that the obesity epidemic may be exacerbated by quite a few of those.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Distracted eaters likely to take in more calories, 03/15/13
Source: “Why gov’t should regulate food like tobacco & alcohol, 12/28/13
Source: “’Impulsive’ brain area linked to obesity in kids, 11/24/15
Image by Paul Fenwick

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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