Self-Control and Fatty-Food Consumption

What predicts your ability to resist that fatty snack?

Posted Sep 24, 2011

We have an evolved preference for fatty foods, but in today's world we need to resist these consumption urges. A new study reveals the role of executive function in this self-restraint.

Dr. Peter Hall is a prolific researcher who coordinates the Health Behavior Research Lab in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo. His most recent study, about to published in the journal, Health Psychology, has revealed something interesting about our self-control in terms of fatty-food consumption. I'm writing about it here in the Don't Delay blog, because I think his research has implications for our understanding of procrastination as well.

His focus is on Executive Control Resources, "ECR" for short, that represent the self-reflective and self-regulatory capacities of our brains. These cognitive skills are typically thought of as higher mental processes associated with the prefrontal cortex (although these processes are most certainly distributed in complex ways throughout the brain). In sum, our executive functions or Executive Control Resources (ECRs) provide us with the capacity to control our behaviors - even prepotent responses like the evolutionary adaptation of consuming fatty foods.

We can't access these brain functions directly (at least not yet). What Peter did in this study was to measure a few cognitive (thinking) tasks that reflect this self-control capacity. Our ECRs vary between individuals. We each have a different capacity for self-control much as we might think each of us having different amounts of athletic or intellectual ability.

The Study
Peter and his students collected data from 208 adults between the ages of 18 and 89 (average age of about 45 years). These volunteers provided information about their body mass, a variety of demographic variables (gender, occupation, marital status, etc.), fatty food consumption, as well as completing a measure of their general cognitive ability and their ability to inhibit responses in an experimental task. The general approach to task inhibition is important to understand in this research paradigm, as it reflects the inhibitory control of executive function.

The approach to measuring this self-control ability was to test the participants' ability to resist responding to inappropriate stimuli presented on a computer. These tests have different formats known as things like "Go No-Go" tests or the "Stroop test." In each case, participants have to respond to some feature of a stimulus while ignoring others. The accuracy and speed of responding is important here, indicating the ability to resist or inhibit the inappropriate response.

The Results
As they hypothesized, there was a positive association between ECR strength and avoidance of fatty foods. This did not vary by age. That is, stronger ECRs predicted lower consumption of fatty foods similarly for young, middle-aged, and older adults. Interestingly, the beneficial effects of ECRs appeared to be selective to fatty foods; they did not predict frequency of consumption of non-fatty foods.

In another recent study exploring executive function specifically related to procrastination, Laura Rabin and her colleagues (Brooklyn College of the City University of New York), concluded that "The executive function domains of initiation, plan/organize, inhibit, self-monitor, working memory, task monitor, and organization of materials were significant predictors of academic procrastination . . . " (p. 344). (Note: You can hear an interview with Dr. Rabin discussing this research on my iProcrastinate podcast.)

Given the theoretical importance of ECRs, it is important to identify means of augmenting or enhancing ECRs. Dr. Hall notes that a number of possibilities exist, including aerobic training, which is thought to enhance cortical function through the effects on blood flow, neurogenesis, and neuronal connections. For example, older adults who engaged in aerobic training demonstrated behavioral performance improvements on tests of ECR, and fMRI imaging revealed enhanced operation of the frontal lobes when doing a cognitive task. Hall concludes that, "At minimum, integration of aerobic training into behavior change interventions might represent an important future avenue of research and practice."

Hall also emphasized environmental factors in the self-regulation of fatty-food consuption. Specifically, he argues that it's important to reduce the extent to which the environment impels us to rely on our ECRs to make healthy food choices.

It's more difficult to stick with our healthy-eating intentions when we're in ecological contexts saturated with cues to consume fatty foods. He writes, "To the extent that our physical and social environments can be reengineered to reduce our selective exposure to cues for fatty food consumption, individuals may be more able to make free and informed food choices in the general population. In short, environmental restructuring could reduce the need for self-regulatory resources (biologically imbued or otherwise) in making healthy food choices."

Implications for Procrastination
As Hall and his colleague Geoffrey Wong had written in an earlier paper, this focus on executive function and self-regulatory capacity has important implications for many of our goal-directed behaviors. In a recent doctoral exam on which both Peter and I served as examiners, this focus on the importance of executive function included procrastination. The lower our ECRs, the higher our procrastination. 

At this point, I think that some readers will be thinking, "like who didn't know that?!" It's about self-control. Yes, it is.

The contributions that Peter Hall and researchers like Laura Rabin are making is fine tuning our understanding of just what aspects of our self-control are important, for example, inhibition. They are also making clear suggestions for change: exercise and "pre-empting what's tempting" are two clear examples.

This research also underscores how we are "like all other people, like some other people and like no other person," to borrow from some pioneers of personality psychology. We are like all other people in that all share these common features of executive function as an evolved capacity of the human brain. We are like some other people in terms of our relative ability or "strength" in this regard. Finally, we each have our own personal histories and contexts which have shaped our unique limitations or "buttons" that, if pushed, may lead us to follow the prepotent response - indulging in that fatty dessert when our diet says no, or needlessly delaying a task when our intention was otherwise.

This means that we might all benefit from common strategies shown to strengthen ECRs, but we also must look carefully at our own lives for triggers, situations and emotional responses that defeat our self-regulatory capacity. This is the sort of wisdom about self that can make all the difference in our ability to make the choices we want and to be the person we want to be.

Finally, what I take from this research is a renewed focus on what it means to be "fit" or "strong." It's not only a physical thing (although research shows this helps more than just the "body" as we typically think of it). It's also our mental "fitness" and readiness to exert our will with a healthy, well-exercised self-regulatory capacity.

Hall, P.A. (in press). Executive Control Resources and Frequency of Fatty Food Consumption: Findings From an Age-Stratified Community Sample. Health Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/a0025407

Hall, P. A., & Fong, G. T. (2007). Temporal self-regulation theory: A model for individual health behavior. Health Psychology Review, 1, 6-52. doi:10.1080/17437190701492437

Rabin, L.A., Joshua Fogel, J., and Katherine E. Nutter-Upham, K.E. (2010). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of Clinical And Experimental Neuropsychology, 33, 344-357.