Neurophysiological Pathways to Obesity: Below Awareness and Beyond Individual Control

  1. Deborah A. Cohen
  1. From the RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, California
  1. Corresponding author: Deborah A. Cohen, dcohen{at}rand.org

Abstract

A global obesity epidemic is occurring simultaneously with ongoing increases in the availability and salience of food in the environment. Obesity is increasing across all socioeconomic groups and educational levels and occurs even among individuals with the highest levels of education and expertise in nutrition and related fields. Given these circumstances, it is plausible that excessive food consumption occurs in ways that defy personal insight or are below individual awareness. The current food environment stimulates automatic reflexive responses that enhance the desire to eat and increase caloric intake, making it exceedingly difficult for individuals to resist, especially because they may not be aware of these influences. This article identifies 10 neurophysiological pathways that can lead people to make food choices subconsciously or, in some cases, automatically. These pathways include reflexive and uncontrollable neurohormonal responses to food images, cues, and smells; mirror neurons that cause people to imitate the eating behavior of others without awareness; and limited cognitive capacity to make informed decisions about food. Given that people have limited ability to shape the food environment individually and no ability to control automatic responses to food-related cues that are unconsciously perceived, it is incumbent upon society as a whole to regulate the food environment, including the number and types of food-related cues, portion sizes, food availability, and food advertising.

Footnotes

  • Readers may use this article as long as the work is properly cited, the use is educational and not for profit, and the work is not altered. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ for details.

    See accompanying commentary, p. 1786.

    The costs of publication of this article were defrayed in part by the payment of page charges. This article must therefore be hereby marked “advertisement” in accordance with 18 U.S.C. Section 1734 solely to indicate this fact.

    • Accepted April 10, 2008.
    • Received February 4, 2008.
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