Your Welcoa membership has expired.

Workplace Obesity: The “Hidden” Cause and How to Deal with It

Personal note from the author: Obesity is not only a controversial topic, but also a highly sensitive one. While the purpose of this article is to provide education, insights and suggestions, you may react emotionally to some of it—especially if you personally struggle with your eating habits or weight. If that’s the case, you’re not alone—I spent my entire childhood battling the physical and emotional consequences of my eating issues and obesity. It is my hope that this article will give you the same basic understanding of brain function that has enabled me to view my condition differently, regain control over my food and weight, and remain in shape for almost three decades.

A Growing (and Expensive) Problem

There’s no denying that obesity is a serious condition, as a quick look at this CDC summary of related increases in health risks will show. Type 2 diabetes… coronary heart disease… stroke… physical pain and depression… the list goes on and on.

Unfortunately, the business consequences can also be serious—absenteeism, lost productivity, and costly medical claims to name a few. According to the respected studies cited in SelfHelpWorks’ 2019 report on the costs of specific workplace health risks, the average costs associated with an obese employee’s condition are:

  • Productivity loss – $506/year
  • Additional healthcare cost – $1,429/year

It is important to note that these statistics provide justification for targeting the condition, not the person who has it. If this article was about reducing high job-stress rather than obesity, the statistics would be similar—$1,721/year to be precise.

Besides, the reality is that most people with obesity really do want to do something about it, driving America to spend a whopping $72 billion a year on weight loss programs.

Yet despite these efforts—and even though healthy eating and exercise are core components of virtually every workplace wellness program—the problem continues to grow.

As this graph clearly shows, adult obesity rates have shot up from about 30% in 2000 to almost 40% in 2016.


Duke University Study – An ‘Aha’ Moment

Obesity is a complex condition with many possible contributing factors. However, it is generally accepted that the two main behavioral causes are unhealthy eating habits and lack of exercise.

So, why have workplace obesity rates continued to grow, even though healthy eating and exercise have long been the core components of virtually every workplace wellness program? What are we missing?

A big part of the answer lies in data gathered during a 2017 Duke University study that looked at obese weight management program participants’ perceived barriers to healthy eating and exercise.

Here’s what the study found…
  • When it came to healthy eating, the main barrier—apart from lack of access to healthy foods—was not a lack of knowledge or awareness… but rather a lack of self-control, along with the convenience of unhealthy foods.
  • Regarding exercise, the main barrier—apart from perceived time constraints—was not physical difficulty or lack of opportunity… but rather a lack of interest and motivation.

The study’s overall conclusion: “To improve their effectiveness, workplace weight management programs should consider addressing and reducing barriers to healthy eating and physical activity.”

While the conclusion itself is obvious, the study provides important insights that help explain why we have not been yet able to reverse our rising obesity rates.

The Cardinal Cause of Obesity

As mentioned before, it is generally accepted that the two main culprits behind the obesity epidemic are unhealthy eating habits and lack of exercise.

However, as pointed out in the Duke University study, the real problem is not the habits themselves, but rather the factors that drive them.

The main controllable factors are in fact both psychological, not physical: lack of self-control over food, and lack of interest and motivation to exercise.

Now, this is where things get interesting…

Society is generally not yet aware that for many obese people, lack of self-control or motivation goes far beyond a simple lack of willpower or self-discipline.

The root of their inability to maintain healthy eating and exercise habits is a complex psychological addiction that they have unknowingly developed over the years.

And while the diets, gym memberships, meal planners, challenges and apps and trackers offered in wellness programs certainly have their place, they are simply not designed to address the specific needs of someone battling a psychological addiction to unhealthy eating or inactivity.

By the way, psychological addiction is far more common than you may think.

It also partially explains why—as shown by a UCLA meta-analysis of 31 long-term studies—most dieters end up regaining even more weight than they lost. Or why it’s such a battle for many naturally sedentary individuals to stick with a regular exercise regimen.

To get a better understanding of how psychological addiction forms, we first need a basic understanding of how the brain works…

The Three-in-One Brain

The human brain is arguably the most complex organ we know of, so bear in mind that the following explanation is grossly oversimplified.

However, it will provide the groundwork needed to understand why some people’s lack of self-control or motivation goes deeper than a simple lack of willpower or self-discipline.

For purposes of this discussion, our brain can be split into three basic parts:

  • Neocortex – This is the outermost layer of the cerebral cortex (“grey matter”). It includes the higher-functioning part of the brain that performs tasks that involve conscious thinking… reasoning, making choices, learning languages, etc.
  • Limbic system – This inner part of the brain is involved in feeling and reacting (often unconsciously)—especially when things affect our perceived survival. Think of the totally irrational anxiety and sweaty palms people experience at the movies when someone gets chased by (totally fictitious) monsters. Welcome to the power of the limbic system!
  • Reptilian brain – This is the “oldest” part of the brain from an evolutionary perspective, and controls the body’s vital functions like heartbeat, breathing, and balance.

In addition to being incredibly complex, the brain is also amazingly efficient. It receives literally millions of inputs a day, but it’s too busy thinking about new inputs to waste time on those it already knows how to deal with.

So, it forms habits—routines, or “chunks” of behavior, that are automatically activated with very little conscious thought, in response to stimuli.

How a Habit Forms

All three parts of the brain work together when inputs are received, exchanging information and feedback along “wiring” known as neural circuits. As new information is learned, the brain’s neural circuitry is altered accordingly.

Habits are essentially formed from three things the brain learns about a behavior:

  • The cue that triggered it;
  • The routine that the mind and body carried out in response to the cue; and
  • The positive rewards received from running the routine.

The more a behavior pattern is repeated, the more the brain learns about it. Until one day, when the brain has gathered enough information and developed strong enough circuitry, wham!—the behavior pattern goes on “autopilot”.

To get a good feel for how this works, think what it was like learning to drive…

I don’t know about you, but for me it was scary in the beginning and took every ounce of concentration I had. However, it got easier and easier as I kept practicing, until one day I suddenly realized I was doing everything perfectly—accelerating, braking, turning, signaling, etc.—without even having to think about it! Amazing!

Health habits are no different—whether good and bad. They start off as a choice-driven behavior… and then, at some point the behavior turns into a nearly unconscious pattern.

Why Some Habits Are So Hard to Break

Based on what we just learned, you may be thinking what I used to: “To change a habit, you simply keep choosing to practice the desired behavior until the brain rewires itself and goes on autopilot.”

Unfortunately, with certain habits—the hard ones to break—it doesn’t work that way.


Remember the limbic system—the “feeling and reacting” part of the brain that often responds unconsciously when behaviors affect our perceived survival?

Well, the limbic system perceives any behavior associated with emotional pleasure or comfort as providing a positive reward—even if that behavior is unhealthy.

And the more intense the feelings of pleasure or comfort (i.e. emotional reward) a person derives from the unhealthy behavior, the more valuable the limbic system perceives the behavior to be.

As the behavior is repeated over time, the brain’s neural circuitry changes to the point that a habit is formed. And as the habit continues, and the pleasure or comfort-seeking component eventually becomes embedded so deeply that the limbic system now perceives it as necessary for survival.

At this point, a psychological addiction has been formed.

Now, any attempt to change or quit the habit is perceived as a threat to the limbic system’s very survival, and it reacts by sending out alarm signals and trying to override the decision to quit the habit.

Typical symptoms include stress, anxiety, frustration and motivation-sapping feelings of discomfort… and when eating is involved, insatiable cravings for the very foods the person is trying to break free of.

Like a screaming baby, the more the cravings are ignored, the stronger they become… eventually growing so powerful and all-consuming that they overwhelm the willpower and “force” the person to revert to their unhealthy behaviors.

This is the reason standard behavior modification techniques usually fail to help obese people change their deeply ingrained unhealthy eating habits or stay active for more than a short period of time.

What Can You Do?

The good news is that with the correct approach and an honest effort, the brain can be “rewired” to break free from a psychological addiction to unhealthy eating or inactivity.

In other words, find solutions that do not tell participants what, when and how to eat or exercise (the “symptoms”), but rather help them change the way they think (the “cause”).

The idea is to empower them to change their core mindset and trained cognitive response to trigger substances and situations.

As a former ice-cream addict who used to gobble down as many as 4 or 5 pints a week, I can tell you from personal experience that the results are worth it. Increased confidence and self-respect… freedom… genuine, lasting behavior change… and a higher quality of life.

My suggestion would be to either:

  • Engage the services of a good therapist who works with obesity and psychological addiction; or
  • Implement an effective cognitive behavioral training program that targets obesity.

Final Thoughts

Continuing to address habits like unhealthy eating and lack of exercise is good, but it’s time to broaden our focus and start dealing with the psychological drivers of those behaviors.

Until the issue of psychological addiction is publicized, destigmatized, and addressed at a national level, our growing obesity epidemic will never go away.

If we want to reverse our obesity crisis—and improve the lives of countless people in the process—we need to adopt a “whole person” approach

Bryan Noar

About the Contributor

Bryan Noar is the VP of Strategic Partnerships at SelfHelpWorks, and an avid member of WELCOA who is always glad to discuss all things wellness.

About SelfHelpWorks

Established in 1999, SelfHelpWorks partners with over 600 employers and their wellness vendors, health plans and healthcare providers to help employees achieve lasting behavior change that lowers chronic disease risk, improves health, and enhances outcomes. Their online video-based programs target unhealthy eating and obesity, tobacco addiction, poor stress management and resiliency, insomnia, physical inactivity, excessive alcohol use, and poor diabetes management. The programs utilize a proprietary, evidence-based training process derived from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to transform the beliefs and thoughts that fuel unhealthy behaviors. They are easily integrated into existing portals or can stand alone.