You may have heard the terms “Pavlov’s dog” or the “Pavlovian response” before.

If you’re not familiar with these terms, they refer to a series of experiments on dogs conducted by Ivan Pavlov in the 1920s. Pavlov began his experiments when he noticed that dogs in his lab would begin to salivate when they saw the lab technician who normally fed them, even when the technician didn’t have any food!

Pavlov’s experiments would form the foundation of classical conditioning theory, or the idea that an unrelated external stimulus can cause a behavioral response in living things if there’s enough exposure over time.

In Pavlov’s case, he famously rang a bell prior to feeding his dogs. Over time, the dogs began producing more saliva at the sound of the ringing bell, even if there wasn’t any food present or it wasn’t their normal feeding time.[1]

But those are dogs. We can’t be conditioned like that…. can we?

Human beings have typically been thought to have a high level of immunity to classical conditioning, based on the results of numerous experiments.[2] Experiments of the past were tough to design in an ethical way, however, and also relied on typically unreliable self-reporting.

With the advent of sophisticated MRI brain scanning in the past decade or so, things have changed and researchers have begun to find that external cues like abstract images can trigger increased brain activity when paired with the smell of a food that the subject likes.[3]

Some new research published in the journal Appetite may have just hit upon a bombshell in human conditioning — the idea that people who are obese may be more prone to respond to conditioning cues, especially the type that are commonly used in food advertising!

Tempted By Chocolate Milk

The first study had groups of both lean and obese people view images of chocolate milk, then measured their salivary response by monitoring how much they swallowed. The study was controlled with images of water and an unrelated non-food image.

Obese people react differently to food!

The study found that the obese individuals did indeed increase in their levels of swallowing when presented with the chocolate milk images as compared to the lean group, while none of the groups had any significant increase in swallowing with the other image types.[4]

The theory developed by the researchers is that obese individuals are more susceptible to visual cues of “hedonistic” foods, or those that taste good but are nutritionally questionable. To what degree the conditioning is created by individuals through their lifelong eating patterns or imposed from the outside is still unknown. But whatever the case, this line of study may shed some light on why obese people often have trouble changing their diet even when they know the health consequences may be dire.

Food Triggers Everywhere

Obesity and Pavlovian Response

Does this make you drool? If so, you might be more sensitive to hedonistic food cues, and may need to seek additional help to get past your dietary mental blocks.

In last week’s post we talked about the “Obesogenic Culture”, or research that indicates there’s a correlation between the amount of junk food advertising in a region and the region’s obesity rates.

The hedonistic images of food frequently used in these advertisements and the involuntary response they trigger might just be the explanation. The food advertising industry might just have a deeper understanding of these psychological processes than anyone else, and medical science has some catching up to do.

What does this all mean?

This basically reinforces the idea that if you let yourself go to the point of becoming obese, it is going to be a whole lot harder for you to get healthy than someone who is just a little bit overweight. Because of the mental differences, the cards are stacked against you a bit more than the average person.

This does not mean that it’s hopeless, though. It does mean that you’re going to need more help than you thought. There are weight loss support groups and dieticians that can help with the mental aspects, helping you to defeat one craving at a time.

And it also means that if you’re slipping away, on your way to becoming obese, you need to stop and turn things around immediately. The worse it gets, the harder and longer it’s going to take for you to get back to your healthy, sexy self.

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You can read more about Pyroxamine on the homepage linked above, but if you’re seriously overweight, remember that it’s just a supplement, and you need to seek a doctor’s and dietician’s help for the full ring of support.

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