Executive function in individuals with clinically significant weight loss via behavioral intervention

Obes Sci Pract. 2020 Oct 16;7(1):25-34. doi: 10.1002/osp4.458. eCollection 2021 Feb.


Background: Executive function (EF) is associated with obesity development and self-management. Individuals who demonstrate or self-report poorer EF performance tend to have poorer short-term outcomes in obesity treatment. There may be distinct behavioral self-management strategies and EF domains related to initial weight loss as compared to weight loss maintenance.

Objective: To characterize EF in individuals who achieved clinically significant weight loss via behavioral intervention and examine potential differences in EF between those who maintained versus regained lost weight.

Methods: Participants who previously achieved ≥5% weight loss via lifestyle intervention were included (N = 44). "Maintainers" (n = 16) maintained this minimum level of weight loss for ≥1 year. "Regainers" (n = 28) regained some or all initially lost weight. Performance-based EF, intelligence quotient, health literacy, depression, anxiety, binge eating, demographics, and medical/weight history were assessed using a cross-sectional design. Descriptive statistics and age-, gender-, education-adjusted reference ranges were used to characterize EF. Analyses of covariance were conducted to examine EF differences between maintainers and regainers.

Results: The sample consisted primarily of females with obesity over age 50. Approximately half self-identified as African-American. Decision-making performance was better in maintainers than regainers (p = 0.003, partη2 = 0.19). There were no differences between maintainers and regainers in inhibitory control, verbal fluency, planning/organization, cognitive flexibility, or working memory (ps > 0.05, partη2s = 0.003-0.07). At least 75% of the sample demonstrated average-above average EF test performance, indicated by scaled scores ≥13 or t-scores > 60.

Conclusions: Most individuals with obesity who achieved clinically significant weight loss via behavioral intervention had average to above average EF. Individuals who maintained (vs. regained) their lost weight performed better on tests of decision-making.

Keywords: adults; behavioral intervention; executive function; maintenance; obesity; regain; weight loss.