Learning to make healthier food choices

By Sophie Waldron 
Edited By Jonathan

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If you haven’t already, read Sophie’s first article ‘Learn, eat, repeat: how food advertising works’!

You are sitting down at a desk and a huge burger comes floating towards you. It gets bigger and bigger as it advances, faster and faster. Luckily, you know what you have to do. Don’t press anything on your computer, and the burger will go away.

This isn’t some dystopian reality where burgers are our new overlords. It’s a computer task that can help people make healthier food choices. In the task, which people can also engage with on their smartphones as an app, participants have to prevent a learnt response to unhealthy food items.

People are first trained to press certain computer keys every time certain images of healthy and unhealthy food come on screen. Then in a subsequent phase participants have to press keys to every picture on screen except to pictures of unhealthy food. Helpfully, a prompt comes with pictures of healthy food, warning people not to respond.

This task may seem simple, but it is designed to help people mentally tackle automatically activated learnt responses to obtain unhealthy food. We live in what scientists call an ‘obesogenic’ environment, where high calorie food is abundant and pushed on us through advertising. Research has shown that learnt associations between pictures (such as a brand logo) and tasty food can make us reach for that food even when we are full (Watson et al., 2014)! In such a world we learn to respond to the attractively colored logo-dripping packets of fast food and eat them, rather than thinking carefully about which foods benefit us. Inhibiting learnt key press responses to food might give us the cognitive skills to think twice about automatically reaching for a chocolate bar.

The unhealthy food inhibition task was designed by Lawrence and her team in 2015. They investigated whether preventing an automatic key press response to unhealthy food pictures would reduce consumption of unhealthy foods in people’s everyday lives. It was found that the task reduced self-reported snacking for up to 6 weeks. This holds many possibilities. If people can make healthier choices based on one lab session, it is likely that they can be healthier for much longer if they could carry on with the task on a regular basis as part of a smartphone app.

Another avenue for treating overeating is mindfulness. Mindfulness practice cultivates experiencing the present external and internal environment, including sensory influx and the thoughts and feelings we have. Mindfulness eating practice focuses on the experiential qualities of food, taste, texture, and our feelings of satiety. There has been evidence that incorporating mindfulness eating into one’s life reduces self reported measures of binge and emotional eating (Alberts et al 2012), consumption of sweets (Mason et al., 2015), and BMI (Tapper et al., 2009).

Currently the mechanism by which mindfulness eating leads to healthier food consumption is unknown. Mindfulness has been found to decrease self-reported body image concern in healthy women with disordered eating (Alberts et al 2012), which may lead these women to eat healthier. However there is a problem that runs through this research: self-report.

Self-report is practical, experimenters could not follow around participants every day for 6 weeks prior to testing and write down exactly what they ate, so instead they ask them to keep a food diary. However self-report studies give an indirect measurement of the dimension experimenters are focusing on, and thus conflate actual changes in behaviour with changes in reporting about a certain behaviour. For example in the study on body image and mindfulness eating, it could be that reduced body image concern actually results in healthier and more natural eating. Yet it also could be that women eat the same but interpret this eating as healthier because of their more positive self-image. Self-report cannot distinguish these possibilities.

Another way in which mindfulness eating may trigger healthier choices is by increasing the flexibility of learning about reward and punishment. It has been claimed that obesity might be due to an inflexibility in this kind of learning, as once people have learned that a food is tasty (and thus rewarding) they may eat too much of it despite the undesirable consequences overeating brings, such as feeling too full or being overweight. In other words, they fail to change their overeating behaviour even when it leads to something unpleasant, a punishment. Janessen and colleagues (2018) found that time invested in mindfulness eating correlated positively with good performance on a task where participants had to quickly learn that a previously rewarded item was now punished, and vice versa. This hints that mindfulness eating could arm people with the cognitive flexibility required to overcome compulsive automatic eating patterns.

Further research will have to look at the long-term health consequences of mindfulness eating practice, and apps that train us to inhibit automatically reaching for unhealthy food. Yet studies so far are promising! Both these tools, and others, will be essential in catching up with the explosion of accessible high calorie food and food advertisement in the modern world.

Interested in the science of obesity and how we can tackle it? A recent BBC documentary ‘The Truth About Obesity‘ covers some strategies, including a study looking at the effectiveness of using apps to train better eating behaviours, filmed at CUBRIC

Interested in the effect of mindfulness on the brain? Check out our previous article: ‘The Neuroscience of Mindfulness: What Happens When We Mediate?’

References

Watson, P., Wiers, R. W., Hommel, B., & Wit, S. (2014). Working for food you don’t desire. Cues interfere with goal-directed food-seeking. Appetite, 139 -148.

Lawrence, N. S., O’Sullivan, J., Parslow, D., Javaid, M., Adams, R. C., Chambers, C. D., Kos, K., Verbruggen, F. (2015). Training response inhibition to food is associated with weight loss and reduced energy intake. Appetite, 17-28.

Janssen, L. K., Duif, I., Loon, I., dv Vries, J. H. M., Speckens, A. E. M., Cools, R & Aarts, E. (2018). Greater mindful eating practice is associated with better reversal learning. Scientific Reports, 5702.

Alberts, H. J. E. M., Thewissen, R. & Raes, L. (2012). Dealing with problematic eating behaviour. The effects of a mindfulness-based intervention on eating behaviour, food cravings, dichotomous thinking and body image concern. Appetite 58, 847–851.

Tapper, K. et al. (2009). Exploratory randomised controlled trial of a mindfulness-based weight loss intervention for women. Appetite 52, 396–404.

Mason, A. E. et al. (2015). Effects of a mindfulness-based intervention on mindful eating, sweets consumption, and fasting glucose levels in obese adults: data from the SHINE randomized controlled trial. J. Behav. Med. 1–13.

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