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On Nutrition

When Not Even the Icing Is Enticing

Some people appear to have a built-in ability to avoid food's temptation until they're hungry

September 30, 2002|AMANDA URSELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The key to maintaining a normal body weight may not be a specific diet, whether it's high in protein, low in fat or rich in fiber. Instead, Tufts University researchers say, it may depend on your level of "disinhibition" around food.

People with low disinhibition simply are not tempted by the sights and smells of great-looking, lip-smacking morsels unless they're actually hungry, the scientists have found.

People with high disinhibition are quite the opposite, wanting to eat regardless of their actual state of physical hunger. If they see something tasty, it's as good as already eaten.

In a study of more than 600 women, Tufts researchers found that thinness is part and parcel of low disinhibition--the lower the women scored on a scale of disinhibition, the lower their body mass index. The study was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition earlier this year.

Lead researcher Susan Roberts, a nutrition professor and chief of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts, says that a person's level of disinhibition is the strongest predictor of whether she or he will be fat.

The level appears to be genetically fixed--in other words, we're born to react a certain way around food--but a conscious decision to manage a high disinhibition can profoundly affect its expression, and thus your weight.

Although psychologists have long known about disinhibition and how it can affect behavior around drugs and alcohol, this was the first study to prove that levels of disinhibition and eating clearly affect body weight.

It's hard to imagine a culture more likely to encourage mindless eating than that of industrialized nations. Fatty, sugary, calorie-laden fare is available everywhere we go. Even when we're not confronted with the aroma and sight of such foods, we're constantly reminded of them through advertising.

"We live in a culture that encourages disinhibition," Roberts says. "We have large portions and menu items called Death by Dessert. The possibilities for opportunistic overeating when you are not hungry are overwhelming."

But forewarned is forearmed. Being aware that you are easily tempted can help you take control.

The rather old-fashioned concept of counting calories is one of your strongest allies in this daily battle. So too are using simple strategies such as putting your knife and fork down between bites to help slow the eating process. Compensating for eating a large meal by having less the next day or avoiding foods that you know will trigger total loss of control are other strategies.

Though such restrained eating is viewed by some professionals as encouraging neurosis about food, Roberts says it's needed to combat the ever-increasing problem of obesity.

Neurosis, vigilance, extra care--however you wish to describe this controlled behavior around food, awareness of high disinhibition could be the key to preventing a weight problem from spiraling out of control.

*

Amanda Ursell, a dietitian and nutritionist, is a London-based freelance journalist. Her column appears on the first Monday of the month. She can be reached at amanda@ursell.com.

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