While there are many factors that contribute to obesity, and certainly, it would seem presumptuous to pin obesity on any one factor, as of late there has been some fascinating research that sheds needed light on obesity and, more importantly, the development of it.
Looking at three separate studies, we can make a few associations.
Association one: Animal-Assisted Therapy is related to increased levels of oxytocin in adolescents.
Cynthia Chandler, Ed.D, a counseling professor at the University of North Texas, the Center for Animal-Assisted Therapy’s founder and director and the author of Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling, cites a study that showed an increase in “health inducing and social inducing” hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins after 20 minutes with a therapy dog. Chandler explains, “There is actually a psycho-physiological, emotional and physical (component) to interacting with a therapy animal.” She continues, “Oxytocin is one of the best, most powerful, wonderful, healthy social hormones we have and it’s the one that’s the most grossly affected in a positive way through human-animal interaction.”
Association Two: Increased Levels of Oxytocin are related to increased generosity.
Here is the abstract from a study done by Paul Zak, a foremost researcher on oxytocin’s effects on human behavior:
“Human beings routinely help strangers at costs to themselves. Sometimes the help offered is generous—offering more than the other expects. The proximate mechanisms supporting generosity are not well-understood, but several lines of research suggest a role for empathy. In this study, participants were infused with 40 IU oxytocin (OT) or placebo and engaged in a blinded, one-shot decision on how to split a sum of money with a stranger that could be rejected. Those on OT were 80% more generous than those given a placebo. OT had no effect on a unilateral monetary transfer task dissociating generosity from altruism. OT and altruism together predicted almost half the interpersonal variation in generosity. Notably, OT had twofold larger impact on generosity compared to altruism. This indicates that generosity is associated with both altruism as well as an emotional identification with another person.”
Association Three: Children who are lower in conscientiousness have greater levels of obesity as adults.
Studying more than 2,000 elementary school children in Hawaii who received personality assessments in the 1960s, researchers funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Aging, completed medical and psychological examinations for 60 percent of the original group, who, as adults, agreed to further studies starting in 1998.
The study revealed that children rated by their teachers as less conscientious had greater obesity and higher cholesterol levels 40 years later than their more conscientious counterparts.
The study will soon be published in the Health Psychology journal.
Again, while obesity research is complex at best, and animal assisted therapy in need of more research in general, the links between animal-assisted therapy, oxytocin, and adult obesity, offer some exciting direction in the field of preventative care for obesity.
Citation: Zak PJ, Stanton AA, Ahmadi S (2007) Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans. PLoS ONE 2(11): e1128. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001128
Understanding Personality for Decision-Making, Longevity, and Mental Health, Society For Personality and Social Psychology, Press Release, January, 17, 2013.
Teen and horse photo available from Shutterstock