Exploring the Relationship Between Gambling and Obesity

When you think of a typical gambler, what image springs to mind? A healthy fitness fanatic, or an over-eating, chain-smoking risk taker? There have been numerous studies that have explored the association between gambling and Body Mass Index (BMI), which have shown that gambling activity and obesity are intrinsically linked. In this article, we’ll explore the evidence that shows how a person’s weight and gambling activity are connected.
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Studies Linking BMI and Gambling Activity

It might be a simple assumption that gamblers are more prone to obesity, given that gambling requires a minimal amount of physical activity. Yet there have been various studies that delve into the links between the gambling and obesity that give a deeper understanding of the association between the two. Some studies specifically examine the links between obesity and gambling addiction.

Gamblers More Likely to be Obese

An Iowa based group of professionals published a study into pathological gambling in 2012. Titled Pathological gambling: relationship to obesity, self-reported chronic medical conditions, poor lifestyle choices, and impaired quality of life, the project aimed to assess the physical health and medical correlates of gambling addiction. 186 candidates were surveyed on their health and quality of life, with 95 being pathological gamblers and 91 without problem gambling issues. The results showed that problem gamblers had more medical problems, and they were more likely to avoid exercising regularly. Furthermore, they smoked more than a pack of cigarettes a day, drank more caffeine and watched over 20 hours of tv per week. Perhaps the most significant finding was that problem gamblers had a higher BMI and were more likely to be obese.

Impulsivity Connects Problem Gambling and Obesity

A study entitled Obesity and gambling: neurocognitive and clinical associations was published in 2014 by JE Grant, K Derbyshire, E Leppink, SR Chamberlain. The research found associations between gambling and obesity. The team tested 207 gamblers aged 18 – 29 years of age to assess gambling behaviours. The results found that the obese gamblers displayed significant impairments relating to risk adjustment and quality of decision making. Obese gamblers also displayed sustained attention impairments. Furthermore, they reported a greater monetary loss due to gambling compared with gamblers of ‘normal weight’ BMI. The team summarised that impulsivity was a key area that should be addressed in treating a person with both gambling and obesity problems.

“Obesity was associated with decision making and sustained attention impairments in gamblers, along with greater monetary loss due to gambling.” JE Grant et al – Conclusions

Problem Gambling Linked with Unhealthy Habits

A 2015 study by Algren MH, Ekholm O, Davidsen M, Larsen CV, Juel K investigated how the health and weight of problem gamblers differed to non-problem gamblers. Health behaviour and body mass index among problem gamblers: results from a nationwide survey revealed that problem gambling behaviour was associated with obesity and unhealthy habits. The team analysed survey results of Danish gamblers and determined that those who experienced problem gambling behaviour during the previous year were more likely to be smokers. High-risk alcohol consumption and illegal drug use were also more likely among problem gamblers. Based on their research, the team highlighted a need for healthy living initiatives to be targeted specifically at problem gamblers.

Obesity Linked with Making Riskier Decisions

Altered Decision-Making under Risk in Obesity was published in June 2016. The study, whilst not specifically targeting gambling, gave some interesting insights that could link obesity with gambling. The team categorised 79 people according to their BMI and tested their decision-making under risk and ambiguity. Using the Wheel of Fortune Task (WoFT) to assess decision making under risk, the obese individuals made riskier choices. Yet no differences were found when using the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) to assess decision-making under ambiguity. The study concluded that obesity made it more likely to make risky decisions. Whilst this was used to explain that riskier food choices were linked to BMI, it also clearly has parallels with riskier gambling behaviour.

Impaired Decision-Making Present in Various Addictions

Decision Making Impairment: A Shared Vulnerability in Obesity, Gambling Disorder and Substance Use Disorders? was published in September 2016 by Mallorquí-Bagué N, Fagundo AB, Jimenez-Murcia S, de la Torre R, Baños RM, Botella C, et al. The study investigated how the various addictions impacted decision making. The study compared decisions made in substance use disorder as well as in gambling disorder and obesity, comparing them with healthy controls. The study concluded that impaired decision making was present across all three addictions, compared to the healthy controls. These results help to understand the underlying reasons for obesity and addiction behaviour, and in turn, provided a possibility to improve upon clinical treatments for the problems.

“Decision-making impairments are present in the studied clinical samples and they display individual differences in the task learning. Results can help in understanding the underlying mechanisms of OB and addictive behaviours as well as improve current clinical treatments.” Mallorquí-Bagué et al – Conclusions

Obesity Impacts Problem Gambling Recovery

Whilst previous studies had drawn conclusions about links with gambling and obesity, along with impaired decision making, a later study examined the impact of BMI on problem gambling recovery. The intersection of obesity and the longitudinal course of problem gambling was published in December 2016 by Eric Leppink, Daniel Fridberg, Sarah Redden and Jon Grant. The study recruited 160 non-treatment seeking problem gamblers aged between 18 and 29 and assessed them over a one-year period. The results indicated that obese problem gamblers showed a significantly smaller level of improvement in symptoms over the space of a year compared to participants of a healthy weight. As with the 2014 study by JE Grant and associates, the team called out the need for testing the possible influence of impulsivity on the treatment of problem gamblers with obesity.

Obesity Linked with Certain Types of Gambling Activity

In September 2017, Desmond Lam and I Man Mok of the University of Macau published the findings of their study. Exploring the Relationship Between Body Mass Index, Obesity, and Gambling Level Across Different Gambling Types delved further into gambling and obesity by investigating the association of the two across various different types of leisure gambling. Using data collected by the Pew Research Centre across 1473 gamblers, the team analysed the link between BMI and the gambling frequency for 16 types of gambling activity. The results of their study showed that obese individuals carried out significantly more gambling in 2 specific areas; playing bingo for real money and buying state lottery tickets. They further surmised that among female gamblers alone, BMI was also linked to frequency of gambling at casinos, on college basketball and with video poker machines.

Final Conclusion

It is clear that links exist between gambling activity and obesity. Studies have not only proven that gamblers are more likely to be obese, but they have also delved into the reasons for the two addictions being connected. Evidence from some studies has drawn conclusions that impulsivity is a key factor in the association. Others have indicated that impaired decision making is an underlying element. What is clear is that more studies are needed to examine the associations further. In such a way, a better understanding of the clinical and neurocognitive associations between gambling and obesity can help improve treatment programs for the conditions.

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