THE BLOG

Obesity Crisis or Cognitive Crisis?

09/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Last week, a scientific study published in the British Medical Journal added a novel perspective on how to think of, and consequently address, the so-called obesity epidemic that many developed countries, including the US, are experiencing.

The article Clumsy kids more likely to become obese adults: study (CBC) reports on the study main findings:

- "The study was based on tests of about 11,000 people in Britain who were tested for hand control, co-ordination and clumsiness at age seven and 11, and were then followed until age 33."

- "Prof. Scott Montgomery of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and his colleagues at Imperial College London in England said they purposely chose measurements of fine hand control such as picking up matches, rather than those likely to be influenced by participating in sports, such as catching balls."

- "While it is often assumed that the cognitive impairments seen in adult obesity are a consequence of excess weight, that could be putting the chicken before the egg, the researchers say"

This is an important distinction to consider. It reminds me of my recent interview with Dr. Judith Beck on how to "Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person"

- "The main message of cognitive therapy overall, and its application in the diet world, is straight-forward: problems losing weight are not one's fault. Problems simply reflect lack of skills--skills that can be acquired and mastered through practice. Dieters who read the book or workbook learn a new cognitive or behavioral skill every day for six weeks. They practice some skills just once; they automatically incorporate others for their lifetime."

- "That is exactly my goal: to show how everyone can learn some critical skills. The key ones are:"

- "1) How to motivate oneself. The first task that dieters do is to write a list of the 15 of 20 reasons why they want to lose weight and read that list every single day."

- "2) Plan in advance and self-monitor behavior. A typical reason for diet failure is a strong preference for spontaneity. I ask people to prepare a plan and then I teach them the skills to stick to it."

- "3) Overcome sabotaging thoughts. Dieters have hundreds and hundreds of thoughts that lead them to engage in unhelpful eating behavior. I have dieters read cards that remind them of key points, e.g., that it isn't worth the few moments of pleasure they'll get from eating something they hadn't planned and that they'll feel badly afterwards; that they can't eat whatever they want, whenever they want, in whatever quantity they want, and still be thinner; that the scale is not supposed to go down every single day; that they deserve credit for each helpful eating behavior they engage in, to name just a few."

- "4) Tolerate hunger and craving. Overweight people often confuse the two. You experience hunger when your stomach feels empty. Craving is an urge to eat, usually experienced in the mouth or throat, even if your stomach is full."

A problem like the obesity epidemic is, no doubt, a result of many factors, where chicken and egg are often mixed. There is no "magic pill" that is going to work for everyone. What matters, though, is how to set up public health policies and specific plans that take into account the Cognitive dimension: the ability to self-regulate behaviors is not a genetic given, but learnable and trainable. If adults cannot regulate their own eating and exercise habits, half the battle is lost.