Restrained and unrestrained eating behaviors affect risk for adult-onset obesity

February 22, 2002

Weight gain during adulthood has increased by more than 50% in the past 30 years, and more than 55% of the adult population is presently considered overweight or obese. In a study designed to examine the relationship between different aspects of eating behavior and adult weight gain, Hays et al. followed changes in weight and dietary habits over approximately 30 years in a group of women currently 55-65 years of age. They found that two aspects of eating behavior-restraint and disinhibition-interact closely with the amount of weight gained, and concluded that these two behaviors should be the focus of ongoing efforts to prevent adult-onset obesity.

The 638 subjects in the study completed questionnaires providing information on current height and weight and changes in body weight and food intake over a series of 10-year intervals, beginning at the age of 20. Since early adulthood, 87% of the women had gained weight, 8% had lost weight, and 5% had maintained a constant weight over time. Three components of eating behavior were assessed separately: restraint, or the tendency to consciously restrict food intake; disinhibition, or the tendency to overeat in the presence of palatable foods; and hunger, or susceptibility to perceived bodily signals of the need for food. Disinhibition was the only eating behavior that was an independent predictor of weight gain although the interaction between disinhibition and restraint also influenced the amount of weight gained. Greater disinhibition was typically associated with greater weight gain; conversely, a higher level of restraint attenuated weight gain even when there were high levels of disinhibition. In a subset of 199 women whose weight gain was studied over the most recent 10-year period, those with high disinhibition and high restraint had gained 3 kg, whereas those with high disinhibition and low restraint had gained 8 kg.

The authors suggest several possible reasons for the connection between disinhibition and weight gain, including the individual's attitude toward overeating, which may be partly mediated by cultural norms and the eating environment during childhood. Unhealthy dietary patterns and a high degree of dietary variety from energy-dense, high fat, or high carbohydrate foods are other possible contributing factors.
Hays, Nicholas P. et al. Eating behavior correlates of adult weight gain and obesity in healthy women aged 55-65 y. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;75:476-83.

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