By Jonathan Cerna
At this point in time, it’s common knowledge that our physiology and our psychology are intricately connected, but the significance of their connection evades us daily. For instance, we dismiss how feeling defeated at work can spike physiological markers that shorten or diminish our health-span. Preventing, combating and regressing such dismissals are of utmost importance. Unfortunately, it is not common to empirically study the underlying reasons behind the behaviors that can lead to future problems. Fortunately, good news in the shape of emerging evidence is helping to shine a light on the cognitive underpinnings behind unwanted outcomes including weight problems and disordered relationships with food. Where are these insights coming from? Attempts to understand the associations between disordered eating attitudes and cognitive flexibility in people with obesity.
A relatively recent article explored associations between disordered eating behaviors and measures related to cognitive flexibility.
Before jumping into the study, it’s worth highlighting how it might help inform our lives. You might not have obesity or an eating disorder, but bringing awareness to seemingly innocuous attitudes that we might hold is precisely the kind of empowerment that we could extract from an article such as this one. This study took a deep dive at how holding rigid cognitive paradigms might be rooted in our neurophysiology.
Who was studied?
132 adults (82 females, 50 males) with obesity and without an official clinical diagnosis for an eating disorder were recruited.
This population is especially relevant because of two particular reasons:
(1) The physiology of obesity is the target of many active prevention efforts, and holding some degree of disordered eating attitudes is not uncommon for most people. Evidence suggests that higher body mass is associated with impaired cognitive control, and that individuals with eating disorders tend to exhibit cognitive deficiencies in cognitive flexibility. So, if one is interested in understanding an at-risk population for said psychological and physiological conditions, then there is no better group to study than this one.
(2) Most adults fell under the category of subclinical disordered eating thought patterns. In the spectrum of disordered eating patterns, we all fall somewhere along the spectrum. This helps us to see eating disorders in gray-scale, rather than merely black-and-white. If we categorize people as either having or not having a problem, we miss the opportunity to understand the subtleties and potential opportunities to mitigate that problem. However, if we understand that most people fall somewhere on the spectrum of “no problem at all”, passing through the “sometimes I think too much about food and my weight”, all the way down to “I can’t live a day of my life without obsessively worrying about food and messing up social interactions because of it”, then we are better equipped to help differentiate the slight changes in thought patterns that cause people to cross the line into a serious condition.
What was studied?
Researchers collected a variety of demographic and dietary information, as well as an IQ test.. Specifically, they accounted for age, sex, body mass index (BMI), intelligence quotient (IQ) scores, and a measure of diet quality known as healthy-eating index (HEI) when looking at results. Additionally, participants completed a computerized game testing their multitasking ability (cognitive flexibility). Their corresponding accuracy and reaction time was collected while wearing a cap that captured the electrical changes in their scalp that communicated neural efficiency.
Put simply, when looking at relationships between things that are affected by many other things can be complicated. For instance, obesity tends to disproportionately affect women so we account for sex. One’s upbringing might have resulted in higher cognitive abilities so we account for IQ. And so the logic goes for other factors that were accounted for.
Regarding the connection between disordered eating and multitasking: this is noteworthy because most research can’t really speak to the connection between behavioral rigidity (e.g. being way too confident that this food should be excluded from my diet because it is fattening) and cognitive rigidity (i.e., not being able to efficiently switch between rules).
Result and Takeaways
Results showed that the higher your score is for disordered eating patterns, the slower and less accurate you were when trying to multitask (at least for the population studied).
Although much more research is needed to stand on solid ground when making recommendations, it’s safe to say that precaution must be exercised whenever establishing new dietary regimens. There’s no question that being equipped with a psychological armamentarium is needed in our hedonistic, obesogenic environment, but the devil is in the details. If your friend comes to you, telling you all about how they have rules about “never eating sugar” or “keto diets being the final solution”, feel free to raise both eyebrows at once.
More research needs to explore the underlying cause for the associations found in this study. In other words, are your rigid dietary rules leading to physiological problems, or are your physiological problems making it easier to fall under the illusory constraints of rigid dietary rules? Either way, awareness of the problem precedes the strive towards solutions, and without a doubt, this research is making us aware about the potential problems: to use excessively rigid food rules can be truly troublesome.
Peer edited by: Meredith Edelman