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Why we eat may be as important as what we eat, say BYU researchers

As American obesity levels continue to rise in the face of public nutrition programs, Brigham Young University researchers are looking to Japan for solutions.

In a society that places a similar value on thinness to America's, Japanese young adults don't seem to share Americans' love-hate relationship with fatty fast foods thanks to their different motivations for eating. The BYU team advocates weaving cultural attitudes toward body image and food into American health policy.

In a new study appearing in the June issue of the journal "Health Promotion International," BYU associate professor of health science and lead researcher Steve Hawks says studying countries' differences in cultural motivations for eating can provide key insights into the fight against obesity.

"Americans primarily associate food with health objectives such as being thin and least with the simple pleasure of a satisfying meal," says Hawks. "The Japanese, on the other hand, have managed to maintain a more healthy relationship with food in terms of diversity of diet and less of a focus on the restriction and deprivation that go along with trying to be thin."

To better understand the differences between American and Japanese attitudes toward food, researchers created the Motivation for Eating Scale and conducted a survey in the United States and Japan. Responses from more than 1,200 college students were then compared to body mass index readings and the motivation scale to determine obesity levels and accompanying attitudes.

Among the study's findings:

  • American men and women are more likely than their Japanese counterparts to eat in response to TV or movie viewing.

  • Although Japanese women value thinness and diet at high levels, they do not seem to deprive themselves of favorite foods to the same extent as American women.

  • Americans who consider weight loss as important or who think a lot about dieting are more likely to engage in emotional eating, which may be a precursor to more serious eating disorders. In general, BYU researchers found that Americans have a less healthy relationship with food and eating than the Japanese. Ironically, the American premium on thinness and the focus on dietary restriction and deprivation are possibly the important contributors to the growing rates of obesity, emotional eating, eating disorders and poor body image in the United States, says Hawks.

    The researchers hypothesize that Americans tend to avoid fattening foods to the extent they begin to feel high levels of physical and emotional deprivation.

    "This heavy degree of restrictive dieting in America may actually lead to increased obesity," says Hawks. "The body reacts to dieting by storing more fat than normal and by significantly decreasing the number of calories burned during normal activities."

    The study's findings highlight the need to broaden public health policies to address cultural values in relation to body image and self-esteem, rather than merely focusing on nutritional value and serving size, says Hawks.

    "The emphasis on thinness needs to be replaced with a sensitivity to cultural influence and an emphasis on fitness and wellness."

    Joining Hawks on the study are BYU health science associate professor Ray M. Merrill, graduate student Hala N. Madanat, research assistant Marylynn B. Goudy, and associate professor of nutrition Takeo Miyagawa of Otemae College in Osaka, Japan.


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