It’s no secret America’s got a bit of a weight problem. More than one-third of U.S. adults (or nearly 80 million of us) are considered obese by the friendly folks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If my annual (free) five-minute health screen at work is to be trusted, I’m one of those 80 million, as my BMI came in at a svelte 30.1. My mom says I’m just big boned.
The annoying thing is I’m not trying to be fat. It just sort of happened. But I’m also not really trying not to be fat. So… what’s an indifferent chubby redhead to do?
According to some very exciting research, I might be able to save my life by merely keeping less food on hand and hiding the food I do have in the house behind closed doors. It’s fantastic news for anyone who can’t be bothered to set goals, buy a gym membership, and stop eating crap all the time.
Dead People Food
“It doesn’t take a big leap of faith to say if you’re spending most of your time where there’s more food sitting out to see, that’s going to make it harder not to eat,” says Charles Emery, an Ohio State University psychologist. Emery led a research team in investigating what he considered an overlooked influence of the obesity epidemic: the home environment.
The researchers took note of every little detail in the homes of 100 people, half of whom were considered medically obese. They looked at what kind of food people had in their homes, where they kept it, how much they had on hand, and more. Emery and his team discovered that those who were not obese tended to have less food in the house and less room to store it than did the obese people in the study.
But it’s not nearly that simple. The obese people did have more food in the house, yes, but they also left it out in plain sight and within easy reach of their favorite lounging locations.
Comfort Food to a Fault
Emery says obese people are more likely to be depressed because of the negative stigma attached to being overweight. This is why he thinks there may be a link between depression and the tendency to keep snacks within arm’s reach. He saw hints of this connection while conducting the study, as obese participants admitted they worried about food more than the non-obese participants.
“The picture you see is that the obese individuals (are) thinking about food more, not feeling good about themselves,” explains Emery. He says this heavy emotional burden might be leading them to keep more food around to comfort themselves when these negative thoughts arise.
Correlation, Not Causation
While Emery isn’t the first researcher to pose the question of whether or not your environment plays a role in your weight, we’re still a long ways from proving any sort of direct link. As James Hill, a physiological psychologist at the University of Colorado points out, this latest study “doesn’t tell us much about why people are obese or how to help them lose weight” and formulating any sort of medical recommendation based on Emery’s findings “would be a mistake.”
Emery, to his credit, doesn’t disagree, acknowledging the limitations of his own study. Like Hill, he recognizes his evidence is merely observational, but he also says the findings have inspired a new, more direct question to examine: If you change your environment, can you thereby change your behavior?
Personally, I’ve got my fingers crossed for a resounding yes with a high statistical significance… because I love redecorating, and it’s a whole lot cheaper than a gym membership.