The Mental Snag That Makes It Seem Like Food Is Everywhere, Especially If You’re Overweight

GettyImages-464417620.jpgBy guest blogger Stacy Lu

If you’re planning to take off weight in the new year and it suddenly seems like food is everywhere – and is especially enticing – that’s probably your mind playing a particularly unhelpful trick on you. Thinking about food, even in terms of trying to avoid it, can actually make it more likely that you’ll notice food in your environment, especially if you’re already overweight or obese.

That’s according to a recent study in the International Journal of Obesity that compared how overweight and healthy weight people pay attention to food. Food cues – sights, smells, advertisements and social contexts like parties – are everywhere these days, so understanding why some people find it harder to ignore them could be key to designing weight loss programmes.

Suzanne Higgs of the University of Birmingham and her colleagues prompted 43 overweight or obese participants and 49 healthy-weight participants to adopt a “food mindset”, or not, during a computerised task by asking them to memorise a picture of a food item, such as pizza, or a non-food item, such as a spanner. Next, they had to locate as fast as possible the position of a circle (left or right-side of the screen), while ignoring the location of a distractor (a square). On some trials the circle was accompanied by a picture of the memorised food item, but on other trials it was the distractor that was accompanied by this food image. 

All the participants found it harder to spot the circle when they were in a food mindset and it was the distractor, rather than the target circle, that was accompanied by an image of food. Crucially, however, the distracting effect of food and being in a food mindset was greater for the overweight or obese participants, suggesting they had a harder time disengaging from food. 

The participants also returned to the lab a year later for a weigh-in. The more that the participants’ task performance had been swayed by a food mindset, the greater their increase in BMI tended to be, indicating that the attentional processes uncovered in the lab have a real-life impact.

“We suggest that thinking about food increases the likelihood of overeating, because a person is more responsive to the presence of food in the environment and, in the long run, this kind of opportunistic eating could lead to weight gain,” Higgs says.

The new findings add to previous research that’s shown it’s hard to ignore food when it’s on our minds. For instance, in an earlier study, Higgs showed that food-related images grab the attention of people preoccupied with food more than do non-food items, even for people of a healthy weight. Once we’ve latched on to a food thought, it’s hard to get past it, particularly if we’re hungry. For example, we might become preoccupied with a tray of chocolate at a party, and find it difficult to concentrate on sparkling conversation.

However, studies so far have cumulatively suggested that overweight people may be more prone to the attention-grabbing properties of food than their lean peers. “It is possible that because many people with obesity are trying to diet, thoughts about restricting food intake actually make it more difficult to ignore food,” Higgs says. 

How, then, can you stick to your dieting resolutions for 2019?  One way of reducing responsiveness to food cues may be to try to interrupt the flow of food thoughts, Higgs says. Research suggests that distractions like solving puzzles or playing games can reduce food cravings. Other tips include planning naughty lapses and avoiding temptations in the first place. 

Top-down guidance of attention to food cues is enhanced in individuals with overweight/obesity and predicts change in weight at one-year follow up

Post written by Stacy Lu (@Stacylu88) for BPS Research Digest. Stacy Lu is a health journalist who writes often about psychology, nutrition, diabetes, and public health. You can see more of her work at

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