As part of the ‘research uncovered’ lecture series, Dr Natalia Lawrence, a senior lecturer for Psychology at the university of Exeter explains her strategy for tackling compulsive eating.
Dr Lawrence is a neuroscientist, with a background in experimental psychology, behavioural neuroscience and clinical research. Recent research into addictive eating evidently reflects these interests, as she demonstrates how electronic forms of Cogitative Training have been used to tackle overeating, especially constant binging on unhealthy foods.
A rather distinct form of ‘brain training’ was introduced to the audience, which targets key psychological and behavioural processes with an aim to alter our environmental interactions. The electronic training that’s been intensively tested ever since July has proven to condition people into repeatedly responding to specific images with a distinct positive or negative attitude through the click of a button. As a result, peoples’ attitudes towards particular kinds of food alters eating behaviours, the process aims to simultaneously aid weight loss and a healthy living.
The lecture initially began with some relatively shocking health facts that were used by Dr Lawrence as proof that overeating is becoming an increasingly worrying problem in society. In the UK, approximately 64% of adults are classed to be either obese or overweight, making it particularly concerning for young people. Dr Lawrence views this as a ‘ticking time bomb’ that the NHS is understandably concerned about as estimated figures show that up to 50% of adults risk being obese by 2030.
In an attempt to underpin the causes of increased obesity amongst the public, Dr Lawrence highlighted the detrimental effects of the food culture that we’re exposed to in society. Inactivity was brushed over as a controversial generalisation, whereas all evidence directed researchers towards an increased calorie intake. The estimated amount of calorie intake over the years has systematically increased by 1% a year since 1980. This parallels heightened risks of health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, strokes, and cancer.
Dr Lawrence described the UK as an ‘obesogenic environment,’ due to the ready availability of tempting and highly hedonic foods that are excessively high in fats, refined sugars, and salt. There was a heavy emphasis on the diverse variety of foods, their ‘on the go’ accessibility, and the ridiculous amount of marketing that exposes such foods to the public eye. The absurdity of having chocolate and crisp loaded vending machines outside of sports centres was emphasised in the lecture, a detrimental food habit indoctrinates society from a young, as many perceive eating so much junk food as a social norm. Therefore, even if someone tried following a healthy lifestyle that involved exercise, temptations (even sat outside the gym) will cross their path more often than not.
Why do we initially have cravings that leave us with hopelessly low levels of self-control? The answer is far simpler than imagined; it’s all due to a stimulus. Our mind retains memories of how enjoyable the experience of eating particular foods was, which is triggered by a cognitive process in our brains when particular foods are in our environment. A motor response is therefore evoked when in sight of a stimulus (processed foods), which is created within milliseconds as our experience of eating foods in the past has taught our mind the rewarding effects to our taste buds.
What determines whether or not we give in? Self control is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, however the majority of the time the impulse is stronger than the urge to resist due to the speed of our motor neurons. Dr Lawrence’s aim is to therefore tackle the way our mind processes certain stimuli, by altering our association with foods that we would previously give into.
In the aftermath of several FMRI (Functional Magnetic Response maging) experiments, researchers analysed how our mind subconsciously desires food that it was previously exposed to. With our daily exposure to food adverts and chocolate deals, simply being told to buy an overpriced pack of grapes wouldn’t be enough of a deterrent from the highly calorific and satiating ‘junk food’ alternatives. The technological experiment aims to change the brain’s dominant ‘go’ response to a ‘stop’ response.
The audience at the lecture theatre were engaged into the presentation as Dr Lawrence had adapted the online test to suit our seating arrangement. As opposed to clicking on images on a screen, we were asked to tap on our desks when we were presented with PowerPoint slides of healthy foods and to refrain from tapping when a framed ‘unhealthy’ food was presented. The method of resisting to tap or click when we see conventionally desirable foods is a way of training our minds to refrain from certain temptations.
Experiments were initially conducted at the University of Exeter’s medical school with 9000 adult participants, who all averaged at around a similar BMI of over 20 and who consumed highly fatty foods more than 3 days a week. The online tests consisted of four 10 minute-training sessions over the span of two weeks. Long-term after effects of the training were seen to be positive, on average participants lost around 2.5Kg after six months.
Having said that, 69% of participants would have preferred it if they could chose the foods they’re encouraged to avoid as different individuals have different cravings. A survey was conducted to determine the main trigger foods that cause binging and the results pointed towards alcohol, chocolate, cake, and soft drinks. A feature that allows individuals to cater their food options will however be implemented onto the app version of the current online game.
Like most experiments, the outcomes were more effective for some participants, according to their history of eating habits. There was a noticeable trend, where individuals who had stronger impulses of snacking more frequently benefitted more from the tests as there was more to alter in their behaviour.
Lastly, Dr Lawrence emphasised that a simple computer game that can control our eating habits shouldn’t be seen as a simple solution to weight loss, as she advocates regular exercise and mindful / informed eating as part of any weight loss journey.
A link to the online test: firstname.lastname@example.org