• Wed, Jun 19 - 1:30 pm ET

Your Thoughts About Obesity Can Predict Your BMI

thinking about obesityA recent study published in Psychological Science suggests that a person’s beliefs on what causes obesity can predict their body mass.

Researchers Brent McFerran and Anirban Mukhopadhyay, Ph.D, first surveyed people online to see how personal beliefs may affect the global trend toward obesity aka the obesity epidemic. Once they found that people overwhelming believe that the primary contributor obesity was either poor diet or lack exercise; genetics coming in as a “distant third,” they decided to investigate further.

McFerran and Mukhopadhyay conducted studies in five countries, across three continents. Data from participants in France, Korea and the United States mirrored what had been collected in the first study, but with a twist! The team was surprised by ”the fact that we found lay theories to have an effect on BMI over and above other known factors, such as socioeconomic status, age, education, various medical conditions, and sleep habits.” This fact lead the researchers to their hypothesis that the link between people’s beliefs and their BMI could be related to how much they eat.

Data from other countries provides further evidence to bolster their hypothesis that our thoughts about the causes of obesity mirror our eating habits and BMI. They discovered that Canadians who believe lack of exercise is the main cause of obesity consumed more chocolates than those who sited poor diet and participants in Hong Kong who were primed to just think about the importance of exercise ate more chocolate than those primed to think about the importance of diet. These findings remind me of all those articles that are like “Why Your Diet Is A Huge Fail” that say that sometimes when a person starts working out more, they think they can eat more and don’t lose any weight.

The study suggests that public health initiatives should focus on altering people’s beliefs in addition to their behaviors, which sounds creepy! Don’t be influencing my thoughts, weird 1984 style anti-obesity thought police. But for real, my thoughts are these: Personally, my weight is wholly unaffected by how hard I’m working on my fitness, but diet change shifts weight easily–so had I participated in the study, I would have answered that diet is the biggest contributor to obesity.

Focusing only on obesity and BMI, rather than a comprehensive range of health measures, is a big fat case of not seeing the forrest for the trees. Under no circumstances should we snub the importance of exercise. Maybe people who consider both diet and exercise are in better condition than those who stress one or the other?

 Story via PsychCentral//Image via Shutterstock

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  • dfwmom

    More really, really bad science.

    An association does not demonstrate cause and effect.
    An association does not demonstrate cause and effect.
    An association does not demonstrate cause and effect.

    If the study demonstrated that people held these beliefs BEFORE they later became obese, it would be “predictor”. If they hold it after they become obese, it is merely an “association”.

    You could propose that people are obese because they are less likely to believe diet and exercise are the causes of obesity.

    But, it is equally possible that obese people form the theory that diet and exercise are not the causes of obesity BECAUSE they have tried affecting obesity through diet and exercise and found it did not work.

    This study offers no evidence for EITHER interpretation. Only that there is a relationship between belief and obesity, not which one causes the other.

    Stuff like this makes me truly dubious of psychology as a “science”. If they would stick to what the science says (there is an association), and not make stuff up (there is a demonstrated cause/effect relationship), I would have more respect for the profession.