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New Research Shows a Link Between Obesity and Hoarding

Updated on May 28, 2017
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A southeast native, Beverly majored in psychology at GSU. She has a strong interest in workplace politics and human behavior.

If you have to clear off your dining table in order to eat, or if you are constantly moving things from the bed to the floor to go to sleep at night, you may have a hoarding problem. You aren't alone.
If you have to clear off your dining table in order to eat, or if you are constantly moving things from the bed to the floor to go to sleep at night, you may have a hoarding problem. You aren't alone. | Source

Take a look around you, what do you see?

What kind of environment do you live in?

If you are sitting at the computer reading this, look around you. What do you see? Is your desk or work area neat and clean—or is it surrounded by a collection of toys, photos, and figurines? Or perhaps piles of paper, books, and magazines?

Does your pencil cup runneth over with an abundance of writing instruments with your favorite team logo, a neat design, special color ink, or smooth-flowing gel that glides like butter over the paper? Do you hate to throw those pens away when the ink is gone—thinking that you can find refills, even though you haven't done so in over ten years—and yet still can't bring yourself to throw them away?

Do you keep cards and letters from your children and spouse, grandparents, friends, funny sayings and quotes, candles, paper clips often made into chains, and rubber band balls that are almost as big as a softball... and still growing?

Are you neat and organized without any messes, or do you see clutter and jumble?

Do you have a small storehouse of snacks in your drawers or cupboards? Are there candy dishes and coffee cups or drink cups sitting nearby? Can you not study or work on a project without a snack stash to get you through the monotony? If so, you may have an actual brain disorder caused by a variation in a gene sequence known as Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, or BDNF.

Chances are, if you have this gene variant you are both overweight and a hoarder. Or at least you like to collect things and have difficulty getting rid of things you see as useful (but others see as junk). You are often overwhelmed with anxiety, not knowing where to start in order to tackle a project, and so you just ignore it until the very last minute, thereby increasing your stress!

I'm not fat. I have a mental disorder?

In modern research, weight gain is often linked to brain disorders or genetic adaptations inherited from your parents, not so much will power and discipline. But does this mean you are doomed to be fat forever?
In modern research, weight gain is often linked to brain disorders or genetic adaptations inherited from your parents, not so much will power and discipline. But does this mean you are doomed to be fat forever? | Source

Obesity, OCD and Hoarding are all linked to a gene variation in the brain

If your to-do list is longer than you'd like it to be, your in-box is overflowing, you have too much stuff in your house that you never use, and you border on OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), it may not be your lack of will power that is to blame—but the actual genetic makeup of your brain.

If you find yourself avoiding things like cleaning, organizing, getting out and doing new things, or stocking up on food and toiletry items as if the apocalypse is imminent, then you may well have this genetic disorder that predisposes you to obesity and hoarding—or at the very least, being overweight with a lot of clutter and collections.

While saying that you have a brain disorder doesn't sound much better than saying you have no will power or are fat and lazy, there is some evidence that this gene variant is actually a survival mechanism that allows you to hold on to precious resources in times of scarcity. However, in times of plenty, it may be your undoing.

The "thrifty gene" was designed to help you survive when supplies are lean, but can wreak havoc on your life in times of plenty.

Do you collect too much? Do you eat too much as well? If so you may be genetically predisposed to do so!
Do you collect too much? Do you eat too much as well? If so you may be genetically predisposed to do so! | Source

A copy of the full research article can be obtained from PsychNet for $11.95. The abstract is available free at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0024159.
A free article on the BDNF gene which can lead to obesity and hoarding can be found at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3169010/

According to studies by the National Institute of Health there is a connection between overeating and hoarding.

In a 2011 publication of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, authors Timpano, Schmidt, Wheaton, Wendland and Murphy discovered that a genetic variation in a gene sequence which substitutes valine for methionine, leads to a brain disorder responsible for hoarding and overeating in both human and non-human animals.

BDNF protein “disorder” (again remember it is an adaptive mechanism) leads to changes in the central nervous system and is linked with memory impairment, greater avoidance of things that seem unpleasant (like cleaning or limiting food intake), greater anxiety (at having to throw away something that has great meaning for you or fearing that if you do throw it away you will need it and not have it), aggression (often directed at oneself or at others who are critical of the way you live) and obesity.

For those who want to get technical, valine is substituted for methionine at codon 66. A codon codes or determines the position of an amino acid in a DNA strand.

It gets rather complicated, but if you have valine as one of your amino acids forming BDNF, then you are more likely to overeat and more likely to hoard, which actually makes sense because when you eat too much, you are hoarding food inside your body.

Interestingly, hoarding and obesity occur simultaneously in non-human animals as well, so if you have a beagle that likes to eat too much and stores all her toys in her bed or is obsessively fixated on chasing squirrels to the point of stupidity, it may not be her fault, it's just the way her brain chemistry is set up. Some studies also link epilepsy to this exchange of amino acids in BDNF, so its effects are pretty powerful on the brain it would seem.

We typically think of hoarders as having a mental instability, but there are evolutionary forces driving some people to save and prepare for disaster and it's not all bad.
We typically think of hoarders as having a mental instability, but there are evolutionary forces driving some people to save and prepare for disaster and it's not all bad.

The study also found an association with emotional instability

The study didn't stop at hoarding and weight gain though, it also found a link between emotional regulation.

Research in children found that loss of control over food intake (overeating) was linked with difficulties in regulating emotions as well.

If you have ever seen a woman on TV eating an entire quart of ice cream because she is emotionally upset, or have ever eaten an entire bag of cookies when you are angry or nervous or just feel overwhelmed, it might actually be the way your brain is wired.

You may also be less emotionally stable, even when food in not involved.

Again, individuals who had the Valine genotype when compared to those who had the Methionine genotype were shown to be at greater risk for hoarding and obesity. It was more strongly associated with hoarding than obesity but still related to both with individuals in the hoarding group more than twice as likely to be obese as those in the nonhoarding group

So if you have this gene you are more than twice as likely to overeat and keep too much junk in the house, but are you doomed with no hope of getting thin, fit and organized...not really, it just means you have to work twice as hard to overcome it as someone else! Oh joy, right?

Do you struggle with eating and keeping a clean house?

Do you struggle with weight gain and keeping your surroundings neat and orderly?

See results

Even if you are genetically predisposed to eat too much, be overly emotional and hoard, you can still find ways to subdue those habits

The best way to overcome any vice, be it naturally or unnaturally occurring is to become aware of the triggers that set you off and find substitutes to help you avoid temptation. If you know you will eat an entire bag of cookies if someone puts them in front of you then ask them not to leave them there. Do not buy them, do not eat them or if you must, take a few out for yourself, put them in a storage container and get rid of the others or better yet, substitute a juicy, sweet apple instead.

If you are craving chocolate, try eating a frozen banana blended with some cocoa and vanilla flavor or drizzle melted chocolate over fresh fruit, so you get your sweet fix, but bulk up on healthier items rather than binge on unhealthy ones.

Don't lie to yourself and tell yourself that if your body craves it, it must be good for you, or that dark chocolate is an antioxidant so won't hurt you. It is the sugar and the fat in the chocolate that will put weight on you, not the cocoa itself!

If you have to designate an entire room in our house to your collections, you might also want to look into thinning the herd so to speak by selling or giving things away. This of course is easier said than done, but one of the best ways to de-clutter your life is to put what you do not use on a regular basis in a plastic tub that you cannot see into.

If at the end of one year, you have not opened the tub, you might consider donating the entire thing to charity or dumping the contents at the recycling center or better yet, have someone else do it for you, so you won't be tempted to pull things out.

It does hurt to have to get rid of things that mean something to you, like the rock your child found while hiking, or the newspaper article on your fourth grade English teacher who walked three miles for charity, but it is better to store such things in your memory not in your closet, especially if they are taking over the place and making life difficult or even dangerous.

If you cannot walk a straight line from one room to the next and constantly have to dodge piles of things on the floor, you are probably a hoarder even if your house does not look as bad as some you have seen on reality TV.

It hurts less to give the stuff to someone you know will cherish and enjoy it who does not have a hoarding habit or is not bothered by it one or the other!

Getting organized will help a bit. If you put in shelving or buy stacking containers you can see through, and empty them periodically if you do not use them, it will help a bit, but ultimately you need to get rid of some things and not replace them with more things and this may require intervention from a friend, family member or professional counselor. It all depends on how badly it bothers you and the people who live with you or whether it prevents you from inviting people over for fear they will discover what your home really looks like.

There are all sorts of ways to lose weight and cut back on unhealthy foods, and exercise is always a good way to reduce fat, but one of the best ways to get a grip on your food intake is to keep a food journal and count your calories... ALL of them. and be honest with yourself so that you can discover where your weakness lies; like in the evening after work when eating is the only thing that makes you feel free, or when you are preparing meals for everyone else and end up snacking on 2000 calories while not thinking you ate anything because you were standing up working when you did it!

If you cannot conquer these demons on your own, never give up and say that it is impossible. There are a lot of support groups out there that can help you and give you clever tips and moral support to keep struggling when you want to just give up and fall to temptation.

Even young children hoard things if left unchecked.
Even young children hoard things if left unchecked.

So, if I have this disorder, what do I do?

Chances are if you have this defunct gene, you will never "outgrow" it and you will never overcome it, you only hope to keep it in check.

Limiting your junk collection to only one room or storing your hoard in a storage shed in neatly marked boxes so it is easy to locate when or if needed can help and let's face it, it is kind of cool to be able to pull out your old baby book, your tests and papers from seventh grade and the certificate you won for best essay or the ribbons and trophies you got from sports, but do you really need to keep ALL of them?

In his book Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight, organizational design expert Peter Walsh confirms that cleaning up, or removing the clutter from one's life, often involves removing unhealthy food sources as well. He cites a nurses study that shows that people with super cluttered homes were 77 percent more likely to be overweight or obese. The premise is that clearing out clutter can reduce stress levels which reduces the desire to binge eat.

A 2009 study by Sandra K. Turnajek (AANA NewsBulletin, August 2009, www.ana.com) says that while we are genetically programmed to collect, accumulate and save a variety of objects, often our external clutter is an internal clue to the emotional clutter taking place inside our heads. She cites a 2008 study, The Psychology of Clutter, in Chicago Wellness Magazine that claims there is a direct correlation between clutter and stress and says that clutter makes it harder to prepare healthy meals and get enough exercise (there is no clean spot on the floor to do yoga or aerobics or you feel the need to clean house so stay home shifting piles from one corner to the next and feeling too stressed to exercise afterward). She claims that clutter also uses up valuable time trying to find objects that are lost, which adds to the stress and detracts from healthy activities outside the home.

It is hard to let go of things that you are emotionally attached to, but if they are interfering with your ability to lead a less stressful life, then it is time to let them go or only keep what is really valuable. Many old newspapers and magazines are worth money if in pristine shape, so think about selling or giving things away and using the money for something you really want, like a vacation or taking a class in a subject you have always been interested in learning. Just don't buy MORE junk with it!!

Being genetically predisposed to something does not mean you have no choice but to let it control you, it just means you have to be more conscious of what you are doing and come up with more creative ways to avoid giving in to temptation and frustration.

You can still make healthy food choices and move more. If you become too emotional or too caught up in a task, force yourself to take a break... walk, sing a song, run, lift weights, take a long shower or a bubble bath, listen to music, write in a journal, paint. learn a new hobby or a new sport and reward yourself with non-food, non-addictive rewards (think a day at the spa or weekend hiking trip or bike tour of an historic city).

Research shows that most hoarders also tend to be overweight

Research shows that hoarding and overeating tend to be related to brain chemistry
Research shows that hoarding and overeating tend to be related to brain chemistry | Source
If you are overweight, you might be able to blame it on genetics.
If you are overweight, you might be able to blame it on genetics. | Source

If you feel like you can't overcome hoarding or obesity on your own, there are groups that can help

A group called Clutterers Anonymous, or CLA, offers a 12-step program to help declutter and destress your life. There is no guarantee that if you do either you will lose weight, but the research seems to point to a correlation. The site has a useful quiz to help identify if you are a normal collector or if you may have a hoarding problem.

It's difficult to control stress factors in our lives that make us do things that are more harmful than helpful to our well being, but you don't have to let those things control you and make you a prisoner in your own home or body.

Overeaters anonymous also offers free counseling on controlling your food intake.

It helps to join a group so you can realize that you are not the only one with the issue. They can also share tips and tricks of what worked for them and give you encouragement to drop weight and declutter your environment so the stress you feel is reduced and you are better able to cope with any situation and encourage others to do the same.

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