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Researcher Explores the Psychology of Overeating

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Aired 5/4/09

The problem of being overweight in America is a problem of overeating. The habits that cause people to overeat are hard to break. But a researcher at UC San Diego will embark on a test that seeks to understand and overcome those bad habits. KPBS health reporter Tom Fudge says the key it to understand the psychology of eating too much.

— The problem of being overweight in America is a problem of overeating. The habits that cause people to overeat are hard to break. But a researcher at UC San Diego will embark on a test that seeks to understand and overcome those bad habits. KPBS health reporter Tom Fudge says the key is to understand the psychology of eating too much.

Chris Mansdorfer believes he's overweight. At age 14, he's six feet tall and a non-athletic 211 pounds.

"I feel like being overweight is probably the worst part of me," he says. "It's what really keeps me from feeling completely happy about myself."

Chris is planning to take part in a study, at UCSD, by Kerri Boutelle, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics. Boutelle's specialty is trying to understand why kids overeat and to help them resist the urge to overeat. She says while exercise is important, it's not enough in a society where food is so plentiful. Another thing that's plentiful, she says, are environmental cues that trigger cravings, even when people we're not hungry.

"The problem is, the environment is full of all these foods. So we try to think of a way to resist all these cues to overeat in the environment," says Boutelle.

To understand Boutelle's approach to overeating, think of the research of Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov's dogs began to salivate at the sound of a bell, after the sound was linked to the presentation of food. Like those dogs, many people have become psychologically responsive to cues that make them crave food. Cues may include the sight of golden arches or the proverbial cookie jar in the kitchen. Cues can be behavioral, such as sitting down at the TV where you always have a bag of chips in hand.

Breaking the link between environmental cues and substance abuse is well known in drug and alcohol treatment. Clark Smith is an addiction psychiatry specialist with Sharp Vista Pacifica Hospital. He says environmental cues are a large part of what drive people to drink.

"Very simply, if you go by the bar or the liquor store," says Smith, "or even 7-11 where you usually buy your alcohol, those visual cues light up the circuits in the brain that say 'Hey, the opportunity is there to get that addictive substance.' I've had clients tell me they'll be driving down the street, don't even realize it, and they've made two rights and a left and they're right at their usual bar."

Gail Katz-James is the mother of a boy who took part in a study of overeating that Kerri Boutelle conducted in Minnesota. She says the study taught her child to let his cravings subside, when they were spurred by cues. That helped her eight-year-old lose twelve pounds. Katz-James says taking part in the study also lead to changes around the house. Her family now removes food from the table more quickly to avoid second helpings. She's also remade her home environment to eliminate cues, like the visible cereal boxes on top of her cupboards.

"And this was something that encouraged him to always want to eat cereal," she says. "So what I did is I got an opaque basket that I put the cereal in, on top of the cupboard. So it's just as convenient, it's in the same place, but the packaging isn't visible."

The San Diego study will focus on kids between the ages of 13 and 16, like Chris Mansdorfer. Chris says he hopes and study helps him lose weight in a world that's full of food.

"There's like restaurants and fast food places everywhere. You can't turn a corner, outside of a residential area, without seeing something like a McDonalds or a Burger King. They're everywhere. And at home too, I see the fridge," says Mansdorfer.

Psychologist Kerri Boutelle says overhauling our environment would take decades, if it happens at all. In the meantime, she says she hopes to find ways to help kids break the link, in themselves, between the bell and the food that was demonstrated in Pavlov's Dogs. Tom Fudge, KPBS News.

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