You Are What You Eat: How Personality Traits Can Influence Weight

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Your personality traits may heavily weigh-in on your food choices and eating habits. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Our personality dictates how we interact with everything around us, including what and how much we eat. Whether we’re the life of the party or a wall flower, our traits provide the basis for our unique and individualized food choices, but are there certain traits that lead to unhealthy eating? According to a recent study published in the journal Appetite, those who are more conscientiousness tend to eat healthier than those who are neurotic.

Personality traits are not easy to change and can determine our health behaviors in a myriad of ways. Based on the Big Five model of personality — openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism — a 2009 study published in the Journal of American College Health found college students who were highly conscientious individuals were more likely to wear seat belts, alcohol-related harm reduction, exercise, get enough sleep, and consume fruits and vegetables. They were also less likely to smoke cigarettes, consume alcohol, and binge drink. In comparison, highly extraverted students were more likely to adopt unhealthy behaviors like smoke cigarettes, binge drink, and have multiple sex partners. This suggests conscientiousness and extraversion are linked to health behaviors, especially in college students.

Researchers Carmen Keller, lead author of the study, and Michael Siegrist of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology sought to determine whether different personality traits directly influence eating habits. They believe certain personality characteristics can be seen as “risk factors” for an unhealthy lifestyle. Three questionnaires — one on personality, one on eating habits, and one on food choices — were sent to a random sample of addresses, which drew about 1,000 participants with an average age of 55.

The personality questions were designed to measure the Big Five basic dimensions of personality. They were curious to what extent would these different traits correlate with certain eating habits.

The findings revealed a person’s personality does determine why and what he or she eats. "We found that a person's personality does, in fact, determine why he or she eats and what he or she eats," said lead author Carmen Keller, New York Mag reported. For example, "A lack of conscientiousness leads people to eat impulsively and to lose self-control in the face of tempting food situations with palatable and nicely smelling and tasting food," she added. "Neurotic people may eat too much high-caloric food to deal with their negative emotions."

Unlike neuroticism and a lack of conscientiousness, extraversion typically has positive connotations in society. However, this personality trait was found to be linked to unhealthy eating habits. Extroverts are more likely to engage in unhealthy eating habits due to external factors like the smell or taste of the food. Keller also suggests "It might be that the higher sociability of extroverted people results in having more meals with other people and, therefore, eating foods that are not healthy."

It's known friends who dine together also influence each other’s eating behaviors. A 2012 study published in the journal PlOS ONE found eating with friends can influence weight gain. People tend to unconsciously mimic each other’s eating behavior, defined as taking a bite within five seconds of the other’s dining companion. Bites that were separated by more than a five-second lapse were defined as non-mimicry. This suggests we tend to mirror others’ behaviors as our desire to socially connect with our dining friends.

Luckily, by taking into consideration our personalities’ strength and weaknesses, unhealthy eating behaviors can be avoided. Losing weight may have less to do with counting calories and more to do with your sense of self. Adopting positive personality traits can give positive results to weight loss hopefuls looking to drop the pounds.

Sources: Keller C and Siegrist M. Does personality influence eating styles and food choices? Direct and indirect effects. Appetite. 2015.

Bevelander KE, Herman CP, Larsen JK et al. Mimicry of Food Intake: The Dynamic Interplay between Eating Companions. PlOS ONE. 2012.

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