Meeting of American Psychological Association Focuses on Obesity Epidemic

The obesity epidemic has received significant attention, with schools, government and even First Lady Michelle Obama making healthy lifestyles a focus of their time and work. Given that obesity has been shown to be influenced significantly by psychological processes, it was no surprise that obesity was a central topic at the 120th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

The findings presented at the convention showed that an overweight or obese person can realize significant health benefits when losing only 20 pounds. If the weight is regained within a few years, the health benefits are still significant. In addition, researchers presented findings at the conference showing that foods with high amounts of fat and sugar could be addictive.

One study was led by Rena Wing, PhD, professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Alpert Medical School at Brown University and director of Miriam Hospital’s Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center in Providence, Rhode Island. In the research presented, Wing explained the latest behavioral treatments designed for obesity.

Wing’s research included 3,000 participants enrolled in the Diabetes Prevention Program. All of the participants were overweight and also had glucose tolerance difficulties. In the program, they were taught to alter behavior patterns to avoid the need to take medication.

The study’s findings showed that when the patients had even a minimal weight loss (averaging around 14 pounds) they experienced a 58 percent reduction in the likelihood of becoming Type 2 diabetics. The benefits of losing the small amount of weight continued over a ten year period, even if the individual regained the weight over the same time period.

The patients enrolled in the study were taught behavioral strategies designed to help lose weight. The participants were taught to track everything eaten and to eliminate the variety and amount of foods that were unhealthy from their home. In addition, there were frequent meetings with coaches and increased activity to burn calories.

In another study, Kelly Brownell, PhD, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, presented new information about the addictive characteristics found in some high-fat and high-sugar foods.

Brownell’s research shows that foods high in fat and sugar may create brain responses that signal addiction patterns. In animal models, says Brownell, there have been withdrawal and craving signals activated in the brain by high fat and sugary foods.

Brownell’s work could have significant impact on how food is made and distributed, as well as how it is marketed. If some food ingredients have addictive properties, it may be possible to put limits on how much of that nutrient can be in a food and how it may or may not be marketed to children.

For their work focusing on combating the obesity epidemic, Wing and Brownell were both presented with APA Awards for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology.

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