Your Personality Affects Odds for Obesity

Obesity is a term used to describe a body weight high enough to significantly impair short-term health and increase a person’s risks for chronic physical or mental illness. Numerous public health officials have identified rising levels of obesity as one of the major threats to well-being encountered throughout a wide variety of social groups in the United States. According to findings published in 2011 by the American Psychological Association, certain key personality traits are highly associated with impulsive behavior and an increased risk for becoming obese. Other important personality traits apparently reduce individual risks for the onset of obesity.

Obesity Basics

Weight ranges in the U.S. are commonly gauged through a procedure called a body mass index (BMI) test, which uses a person’s height and weight as variables in a specific, fairly simple formula. People who have a BMI score between 18. 5 and 24.9 have a what’s referred to as a “normal” body weight. People who score below 18.5 receive a classification of “underweight,” while people with scores between 25.0 and 29.9 qualify as “overweight.” All people who have a BMI score of 30.0 or higher qualify as “obese;” however, anyone with a score of 40.0 or higher falls into a special obesity category called “extremely or morbidly obese.” Risk factors for serious physical illness associated with obesity and/or morbid obesity include hypertension (high blood pressure), high blood levels of cholesterol or another form of fat called triglyceride, and a multi-symptom phenomenon called metabolic syndrome. Specific physical illnesses found more frequently in obese individuals include strokes, heart disease, sleep apnea, gallstones and other gallbladder ailments, male and female reproductive problems, osteoarthritis, a liver disorder called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and several different types of cancer. Forms of mental illness associated with varying degrees of obesity include major depression and other mood disorders, as well as several different conditions classified as anxiety disorders.

Personality Trait Basics

Personality traits are the fixed patterns of thought and behavior that help determine the ways in which we interact with each other and with our more general surroundings. Psychologists frequently group these traits into five major factors or categories: conscientiousness, openness, agreeableness, extraversion and neuroticism. Conscientiousness describes one’s relative tendency to act in ways that show restraint, a respect for others, dependability and an ability to favor planning over spontaneous action. Openness describes one’s relative tendency to display curiosity, independence, imagination and an interest in varied or novel life experiences. Agreeableness describes one’s relative tendency to display cooperative or compassionate states of mind, while extraversion describes one’s relative tendency to do such things as seek out social situations, communicate openly with others or emphasize positive emotions. Neuroticism describes one’s relative ability to maintain emotional stability, as well as one’s relative tendency to display unusual levels of emotional sensitivity or “negative” emotions such as anxiety or anger.

Links to Obesity

In a study published in 2011 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers from the American Psychological Association used evaluations collected from almost 2,000 people over a period of 50 years to assess the connections between personality traits and individual risks for the onset of obesity. After completing their assessments, the researchers concluded that people who exhibit two specific personality traits—low conscientiousness and high neuroticism—have significantly increased risks for developing obesity. Conversely, people with high conscientiousness and low neuroticism have significantly decreased risks for becoming obese. Together, high neuroticism and low conscientiousness contribute to a behavior called impulsivity, which involves a tendency to act without assessing a given situation, as well as a tendency to show a diminished level of concern for the outcome of a given action. The authors of the study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology concluded that the study participants with the highest levels of impulsivity had an average weight that was 22 lbs heavier than the average weight of the study participants with the lowest levels of impulsivity. Impulsivity may contribute to obesity by reducing an individual’s ongoing commitment to maintain a healthy weight and avoid regular consumption of foods or beverages that tend to promote significant weight gain. In addition, when compared to people with low levels of impulsivity, people with high levels of impulsivity have a greater tendency to participate in specific activities—such as heavy alcohol intake or eating binges—that make sustained weight control an increasingly elusive goal.  

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