According to a new study presented at the American Psychological Association’s 120th Annual Convention, individuals who are overweight or obese could gain ten years worth of health benefits by simply losing 20 pounds. In addition, the researchers examined data that suggests foods may have addictive properties if they contain high levels of sugar and fat.

The study was presented by Rena Wing, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School and director of the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center at The Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I., and Kelly Brownell, Ph.D., director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

APA President Suzanne Bennet Johnson said in introducing Wing and Brownell:

“Obesity is the No.1 health challenge facing our country today. These psychologists have each contributed greatly in combating the obesity epidemic in different ways, one on the individual patient level and the other on the public policy level.”

Wing referred to her work from the Diabetes Prevention Program, a nationwide study that involved 3,000 overweight individuals with impaired glucose tolerance.

Rather than receiving drugs, study participants were shown how to change their behavior. Results from the study revealed that modest weight loss (average 14 lbs) reduced the risk of individuals developing Type 2 diabetes by 58%.

Wing noted that the health benefits of losing weight lasted for up to a decade, even if the individual regained the weight during the 10 years.

Participants were asked to keep a record of everything they consumed and were required to reduce the amount of unhealthy foods in their home. In addition, study participants exercised more and met with coaches on a regular basis.

Wing explained: “Helping people find ways to change their eating and activity behaviors and developing interventions other than medication to reinforce a healthy lifestyle have made a huge difference in preventing one of the major health problems in this country. Weight losses of just 10% of a person’s body weight (or about 20 pounds in those who weigh 200 pounds) have also been shown to have long-term impact on sleep apnea, hypertension and quality of life, and to slow the decline in mobility that occurs as people age.”

Wing is currently conducting a 13-year clinical trial involving 5,000 individuals with Type 2 diabetes. The aim of the study is to determine whether an intensive behavioral intervention can reduce the risk of heart attacks and heart disease.

Wing explained: “We are trying to show that behavior changes not only make people healthier in terms of reducing heart disease risk factors but actually can make them live longer.”

Brownell said: “Changing food policy is another prevention approach where behavioral science is addressing the U.S. obesity epidemic. We need to be courageous in establishing policies that address obesity and we need to use science to better inform public policy.”

Brownell focused on the addictive impact of food. He explained:

“The primary question is whether foods, particularly those high in sugar, act on the brain in ways that create signs of addiction. Craving and withdrawal signs can be seen in animal and human brain imaging studies conducted by investigators around the world. This could fundamentally change the debate about diet, nutrition and obesity in this country.”

According to Brownell, if foods do have addictive properties, new laws may be created that would limit certain nutrients in food and reduce marketing of these types of food products to children.

Written by Petra Rattue