How do life events affect body weight? Part 2

In my previous blog post, I discussed a paper by Ogden and Hills (1) that explores individuals’ perceived triggers of behaviour change and the factors that contribute to maintaining behaviour change over time. But a number of questions remain: are the events that trigger an initial behaviour change viewed as positive or negative? Are the events perceived as controllable? How do these events influence eating and physical activity habits? Do they contribute to stress overload? Do triggers affect different individuals differently? Which characteristics are beneficial for supporting the behaviour change over time?

To follow-up from the original study, Odgen and colleagues conducted additional research in order to gain further understanding of the nature of life events that precipitate weight loss or weight gain(2). A survey was used to determine the characteristics of life events that preceded a change in body weight, including:

  • perception of the event as positive or negative
  • if the event was perceived as controllable
  • the degree of significance of the event
  • the contribution of the event to stress overload
  • the influence of the event over choice in eating and physical activity habits
  • how the event altered the purpose (function) of the behaviour (e.g. the ability of food to provide comfort)
  • if the event was viewed as beneficial to the individual

Several life events, such as relationship problems, pregnancy, the death of someone close, illness, and going to university were associated with triggering either weight loss or weight gain, depending on the individual.

Why might the same trigger lead to different outcomes for different individuals? The survey responses offer several possible explanations. First, life events that were described as more positive were more likely to be associated with successful weight loss. This was also true for events perceived as controllable. Events that results in reduced choice over food were associated with weight loss, but the the opposite pattern was observed for physical activity: reduced opportunities for physical activity were associated with weight gain. No differences were found for the perceived importance of the event, its contribution to stress overload, or amount of benefit derived from the event.

While there are several key observations that can be derived from these results, I’ll focus on just one – reducing choice. Both studies by Ogden and colleagues suggest that reducing choice, particularly with regard to eating options, was associated with facilitating successful behavioural change. From a complex systems perspective, this limited choice, (real or perceived) may help manage complexity. Too much choice can be overwhelming and lead to poor decision making or relapse(3). If limiting the choices available leads to a perceived reduction in complexity, the healthier choice may become easier to make. It is also possible that fewer choices also leads to an increased perception in control, again, helping sustain the behaviour change over time. This concept is illustrated nicely by the figure below, adapted from Complexity Rising by Bar-Yam.

For example, reducing choice over food intake would serve to lower the complexity associated with eating decisions. An individual’s capacity is thus not overwhelmed by too many choices. Of course, the success of reducing choice remains dependent on the available choices being healthy! Where does this observation lead us? Does knowing the role of choice enable an individual to manipulate his or her habits to take advantage of it to support behaviour change? Perhaps. Scott Young in “Fix Bad Habits: Insights from a 7-year Obsession” provides a good example of one way to manipulate choice in your favour:

“When I switched to a vegetarian diet five years ago, I focused less on what I shouldn’t eat, and more on creating a new list of “Top 10” meals. If I could replace my menu with meals that fit my desired eating habits and taste buds, then my willpower would only be necessary for the less common occasions of eating outside that menu (such as restaurants or family dinners).”

1. Ogden J, Hills L. 2008. Understanding sustained behavior change: the role of life crises and the process of reinvention. Health (London, England : 1997). 12(4):419-37

ResearchBlogging.org2. Ogden J, Stavrinaki M, & Stubbs J (2009). Understanding the role of life events in weight loss and weight gain. Psychology, health & medicine, 14 (2), 239-49 PMID: 19235083

3. Dar-Nimrod I, Rawn CD, Lehman DR, Schwartz B. 2009. The Maximization Paradox: The costs of seeking alternatives. Personality and Individual Differences. 46(5-6):631-635.

4. Complexity Rising: From Human Beings to Human Civilization, a Complexity Profile by Yaneer Bar-Yam

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