Obesity is associated with lack of inhibitory control and impaired heart rate variability reactivity and recovery in response to food stimuli.
Recent theories compare obesity with addiction in terms of lack of inhibitory control in both clinical populations. The present study hypothesized impaired inhibition in obese patients reflected both in executive functions and reduced vagal tone (indexed by a decrease in heart rate variability; HRV) in response to food stimuli. Twenty-four inpatients with obesity (19 women) and 37 controls (24 women) underwent ECG monitoring during baseline, food stimuli viewing, and a recovery phase. Tests and questionnaires assessing inhibitory control and psychopathological dispositions were also administered. As hypothesized, patients were characterized by deficits in all the tests measuring inhibitory capacities. Results also show greater HRV reduction and impaired HRV recovery in response to food stimuli in obese patients compared to controls. The drive to eat experienced by obese patients in the absence of caloric need may rely on impairments in inhibitory and vagal functioning. Results are discussed in terms of implications for therapy.