Obese and overweight individuals are less sensitive to information about meal times in portion-size judgements



Obesity is related to a tendency to discount the future. Information regarding inter-meal interval (IMI) allows meal planning. We sought to assess how obese, overweight and lean people select portion sizes based on the length of an IMI. We hypothesised that individuals with a high body mass index (BMI) would discount information about the IMI. In addition, we investigated how reduced sensitivity to IMIs relates to monetary temporal discounting.


Participants (lean, n=35; overweight, n=31; obese, n=22) selected lunchtime portion sizes in response to information about the timings of their next meal. In seven trials, the time of the IMI was systematically manipulated, ranging from ‘right now’ to ‘8 h’. Participants then completed a monetary temporal discounting task. BMI was included as a continuous measure. For each participant, we conducted a linear regression of portion size on IMI to yield a gradient that reflected reduced sensitivity to future meal timings.


As expected, participants selected larger portion sizes in response to a long IMI. Consistent with our hypothesis, individuals with a high BMI discounted information about the IMI (β=−3.49, P=0.015; confidence interval (CI) 6.29 to −0.70). Monetary discounting also negatively predicted BMI (β=−8.1, P=0.003; CI=−13.43 to −2.77), but did not correlate with IMI sensitivity (P>0.05).


These results are the first to demonstrate that temporal discounting operates in planning from one meal to the next, and is more prevalent in obese and overweight, relative to lean individuals. Participants with a high BMI discounted concerns about potential future fullness and hunger in the IMI. Our observations might begin to explain associations between obesity and irregular meal timings or help to form the basis for a targeted intervention that promotes future thinking in meal planning.

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Work conducted at the University of Bristol was supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC, grant references BB/ I012370/1 and BB/J00562/1). The research of Brunstrom, Rogers and Zimmerman is currently supported by the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013, under Grant Agreement 607310 (Nudge-it)).

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Zimmerman, A., Mason, A., Rogers, P. et al. Obese and overweight individuals are less sensitive to information about meal times in portion-size judgements. Int J Obes 42, 905–910 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/ijo.2017.275

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