How Your Personality Predicts Your Odds for Obesity

Study shows that impulsive types at higher risk for obesity.

We know there is an obesity crisis in this country. Statistics fly at us from various sources (here’s another one: about one third of adults in the United States are obese, according to the CDC). Despite the rising rates over the past few decades, the gravity of the situation doesn’t seem to sink in. Adjustments to restaurant menus, encouragement for the public to make health-conscious diet decisions—while good thoughts and definitely taken with the right attitude, these actions have not made a real dent in the problem. The past 20 years show a huge—and on going—increase in U.S. obesity rates.

But it may not be an attitude problem. As it turns out, obesity may owe more to behavioral patterns that lead to poor choices with diet than simply an unwillingness to change. It may in fact be the case that the yo-yo dieting and weight fluctuations all start with how you were hard-wired from birth.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association, your personality helps predict your risk for obesity, even more so than socioeconomic status. The study examined five major personality traits, termed the five factor model (FFM): 

  • neuroticism (linked with high BMI, obesity)
  • extraversion
  • openness to experience
  • agreeableness
  • conscientiousness (linked with low BMI, leaner body)

Impulsive, aggressive individuals exhibited more weight gain over the 50-year study; neurotic personality types tended to go through several up and down weight fluctuations. 

According to the study authors, “Highly antagonistic individuals, starting in adolescence, gain weight quicker than less antagonistic individuals.” The more impulsive individual, it seems, resists temptations and seeks constant sources of stimulation. Enter: alcohol and food. Unlike the more conscientious type, “hostile individuals tend to continue eating, even after they feel satiated.”  

The study highlights that our personalities may play much more of a role in shaping our actions than previously thought. It also sheds light on how we tend to perceive the obesity problem in the U.S.

It is interesting to note how two opposite ends of the eating problem spectrum seem to share the same trajectory: as obesity incidence rises, eating disorders (still shrouded in somewhat taboo territory) remain prevalent. We praise people for losing weight; ostracize them for gaining. Stereotypes may be blatantly wrong, but they definitely still exist. The study points to the flipped viewpoint of obesity in Western society: from symbol of affluence to its current negative connotations—the study citied, among its research, that “overweight and obese individuals earn lower wages, face prejudice and unsatisfactory treatment from health care providers.”

This doesn’t mean encouraging obesity. But, the study does suggest that there is a catch-22 inherent in weight gain: impulsive/depressive personalities tend to gain weight, and may feel more depressed once the extra weight is gained—but the resultant impulsive behavior and depressed feelings leads to more binge-eating and more weight gain. 

So, what are the implications of the study? “Identifying the trait profile associated with abnormal weight may help to inform future intervention research.”

Basically, identifying an individual’s personality trait and pairing it with the appropriate course of treatment. For instance, placing an extrovert in support groups, where the gathering of peers may be more helpful, whereas an introvert might not respond as well to a group setting. Or, guiding impulsive individuals with a treatment plan of conscientious menu planning and fixed meal schedules.

By examining the emotional and behavioral patterns of certain personality traits—and the ways in which they can contribute to unhealthy weight gain—the study may lead us one step closer to establishing a healthy relationship with food and weight management.

Fixing eating-related issues requires an understanding of attitudes and deeply-ingrained thought patterns and behaviors. A quick Band-Aid fix won’t solve this problem (aka unsustainable fad diets). Effort, patience, and a conscious crack at re-shaping thought patterns just might.


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