Personality Linked To Weight Management

Brain. Personality can affect weight management
Image by ElisaRiva-pixabay

Is weight management really affected by our personality? The American Psychological Association has published a fascinating study that links people’s personality traits (cognitive, behavioural and emotional), with the ability to manage their weight and reduce obesity. They found that if people exhibited personality traits where they were more neurotic or had low conscientiousness, they went through cycles of gaining and losing weight throughout their lives. If however, people were more conscientious, they tended to be leaner and weight did not cause changes in personality during adulthood.

The study drew upon 50 years of data collected from participants in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Ageing which is a continuing multidisciplinary study managed by the National Institute of Ageing. The researchers analysed weight and body mass indices (BMI) from 1,988 people. These participants were generally healthy and highly educated, with an average of 16.53 years of education. The sample was 71% white, 22% black, 7% other ethnicity with an equal split of both sexes. All were assessed on the “Big Five” personality traits of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism, as well as on 30 subcategories of these personality traits. A total of 14,531 assessments were collected across the 50 years of the study.

They found ‘impulsivity’ was the strongest predictor of those who struggle with their weight management. This trait relates to risk taking, levels of antagonism, competitiveness and aggression. Participants who scored in the top 10% on impulsivity weighed an average of 22 pounds more than those in the bottom 10%. People exhibiting more extrovert traits were more likely to have less self-control, give into temptation and lack the discipline needed to stay on track especially when facing stress or frustration. As people age, their weight generally increases, but overlying this, the study showed that more impulsive people had greater weight gain. Earlier research had shown that impulsive individuals were more prone to binge eating and alcohol consumption, and the same behaviours were also leading to increased weight gain.

To maintain a healthy weight, it was typically necessary to keep to a healthy diet and a sustained program of physical activity, both of which required commitment and restraint. This level of control was likely to be more difficult for highly impulsive individuals.

The study highlighted the complexity of both physiological and behavioural mechanisms in weight management. One outcome however would be that tailored treatments were likely to be more successful if an understanding of personality traits was made. Extroverts rather than introverts would respond better to lifestyle and exercise interventions when working in groups they implied.

Sutin, A.R., Ferrucci, L., Zonderman, A.B., Terracciano, A. (2011 Personality and Obesity Across the Adult Life Span. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101 (3). Sep;101(3):579-92. doi: 10.1037/a0024286

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