11 February 2011,

A topic that seems to come up frequently is the idea of Emotional Eating.
What is ˊEmotional Eatingˊ, besides a cover all term for eating in the absence of hunger?

Frankly, Iˊm not a fan of the term because it somehow puts a shameful ˊemotionalˊ undertone to an act that is completely normal (um, eating that is). Eating as much as possible is actually really normal – learning to curb this is going to be the tricky part.

So what is the difference then, between people who can manage their ˊemotional eatingˊ from those who canˊt?

Well, this is one of the bigger questions that underlies our understanding of obesity. Researchers often tie up this Multidisciplinary Research Issue in terms of:
- Environmental Factors (OK, check, we get it already: the food environment is toxic et al, et al…)
- Genetic Factors (mmm- this one is a little shady…)
… and more recently, Impulsivity.

Impulsivity plays a critical role in understanding many kinds of problematic behaviour, but in my view, it has a really special role with overeating; both in terms of instantaneous, ˊSee Food, Eat Itˊ eating and also binge type eating.

What is Impulsivity, and why is it Important ?
Impulsivity is defined as a range of actions that are poorly conceived, prematurely expressed, unduly risky or inappropriate to situations leading to undesirable consequences (Daruna, 1993).

Impulsivity is normal and common in most species (Arons, 2007), however, increased impulsivity is linked as a key symptom of a large range of pathologies (Cloninger, 1987; Congdon, 2009; Pickering, 2001).

Associations between impulsivity and appetitive addictions are both robust and bidirectional (Billieux, Van der Linden, & Ceschi, 2007; Brown, Manuck, Flory, & Hariri, 2006; Crews, 2009; Dawe & Loxton, 2004; Fernandez-Aranda et al., 2006; Lejuez, Aklin, Zvolensky, & Pedulla, 2003).

Elevated levels of impulsivity are associated with virtually every form of over-consumptive behaviour such as excessive drinking, smoking, gambling, illicit drug use, and obesity (for a review please see Verdejo-Garcia et al., 2008).

Critically, impulsivity is significantly higher among women with binge-spectrum eating disorders (Rosval et al., 2006; Steiger & Bruce, 2007; Steiger, Lehoux, & Gauvin, 1999; Steiner, 1973), and impulsivity has recently been identified as a defining trait of obese individuals who have difficulty losing weight (Nederkoorn, Jansen, Mulkens, & Jansen, 2006; Nederkoorn, Smulders, Havermans, Roefs, & Jansen, 2006).

OK, so that makes it pretty clear – right??

Recent investigations have also found impulsiveness underlies both the initial experimentation with drugs (Carroll, Anker, & Perry, 2009; Perry & Carroll, 2008), the inability to stop substance abuse (Belin, Mar, Dalley, Robbins, & Everitt, 2008), and critically that certain subtypes of impulsivity can now be used to predict an animalˊs propensity for habitual compulsive consumption of rewarding substances (Crews, 2009)… like drugs, or food!

Impulsivity, Part Dos
If impulsivity is indicative of such a wide range of pathologies, how can we find out how impulsive we are? (answer: my quirky game! Try it! After this post!)

Defining the neural substrates, in essence, biological underpinnings, of the origins of impulsivity is the focus of significant research- wherein almost every part of the brain has been mentioned. Everything from the frontal areas (the Orbitofrontal Cortex) which is responsible for future planning, to the limbic system (where our desires reside!).

These two points make intuitive sense: it makes sense that an impulsive person has difficulty planning future outcomes (like betting the farm in gambling match). It also makes sense that a person who is more sensitive to reward is defined as being more impulsive (and is thus more likely to continue eating a few chocolate bars after a person less reward sensitive is satisfied with one).

So, maybe a better question is how impulsive you are relative to impulsive or non impulsive groups. Relative to a cocaine addict with a mean craving for the slot machines, less impulsive. Relative to your bis abuela who has a love for accounting software… probably a little more.

The concept of “willpower” is a critical issue. Mischel (1974) originally investigated delay of gratification tasks, and how a 4-year old child’’s ability to control the urge to eat one marshmallow in the laboratory in preference for 2 marshmallows after a 15 minute time delay, could relate to better long term planning and goal achievement later in life.

..Long story short, 4-year-olds who were able to withstand temptation for eating the 1 marshmallow were also more attentive, more self controlled, and also score higher on the SAT (Mischel, Shoda, & Rodriguez, 1989).

The four-year-old 2-marshmallow eaters were also less likely to subsequently use drugs (Ayduk, 2000).

How Do We Become Less Impulsive?

I am a big believer that awareness and education can play a critical role here. I’’ve tried to highlight how impulsivity is related to overeating and addictive behaviours, but when it comes to actually reducing impulsivity, I can offer only a few alternatives:
a. there are a host of psychopharmacological products – although this aimed to very highly impulsive individuals, and I’’m not licensed to mention them here, or ever for that matter.
b. get used to counting to ten, maybe a few times over. In other words, meditation techniques can be really totally helpful here.
c. Distract yourself from extremely intense emotions- sometimes that can be even really intense positive emotions.
d. I have a feeling that exercise can actually reduce impulsivity- particularly long, hard, strenuous exercise. I am trying to get a hold of an exercise physiologist to verify or chat about this issue, and when I do, it will be posted right away.
e. Read my posts before the urge to hit the smarties hits!

Mm, but maybe that’’s going to put you to sleep before anything else.

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