Be honest: Have you already broken your New Year’s resolution to eat fewer fattening foods? If so, it’s not really a surprise. The battle between long-term goals (better health!) and short-term pleasures (butter cookies!) is seldom a fair fight. Reflexive reactions often have an edge over reasoned responses.
Over the past decade or so, a group of researchers attempting combat the obesity epidemic has been experimenting with ways to rewire those instinct-driven impulses. In a just-published paper, two of them—Katrijn Houben and Anita Jansen of Maastricht University in the Netherlands—present new evidence that this shift can be induced, and explain the mechanism driving the welcome change.
In their experiment, they utilized the food many of us find the hardest to resist: chocolate.
“Inhibiting impulses does not necessarily have to be an effortful, top-down process, but can also be triggered in an automatic, bottom-up fashion,” they write in the journal Appetite. They go on to describe an experiment showing that “food-specific inhibition training” can be surprisingly effective.
The study featured 52 female undergraduates who reported they liked eating chocolate on a regular basis. All took part in a standard go/no-go task, in which they were instructed to press the space bar when a “go” cue appeared on their computer screen, and to refrain from doing so when the cue was absent. The cue consisted of either the letter “p” or “f,” which was displayed randomly on one corner of the screen.
“Participants were randomly assigned one of two conditions,” the researchers write. “In the chocolate go/no-go condition, chocolate-related pictures (that is, images of different types of chocolate candy) were consistently paired with the “no-go” cue, while pictures of empty plates were consistently paired with the “go” cue.” The opposite was true for those in the alternate condition.
Afterwards, all were asked to participate in a bogus taste test, in which they were presented three bowls filled with different types of chocolates and told they could eat as much or as little as they wanted before making their assessments. Participants also filled out forms detailing their concerns about weight and dieting, their body-mass index, and their general level of chocolate craving.
The key result: “Participants in the chocolate/no-go condition consumed significantly less chocolate during the taste test compared to participants in the chocolate/go condition.” Specifically, they ate an average of 29.45 grams of chocolate, compared to 37.91 grams for those who had just associated the terms “chocolate” and “go.”
The researchers are quick to point out that “one single session was not enough to induce automatic associations between ‘chocolate’ and ‘stop.'” But as another part of the study found (and the actual consumption levels confirmed), it was enough to reduce the automatic association between the sweet treat and the “go” impulse. Could a series of such sessions break it completely? The question is certainly worth researching.
Granted, re-training our automatic impulses in this way has vaguely unsettling overtones of mind control. But given the personal and societal problems associated with obesity, this may be one brave new world worth venturing into. Call it A Clockwork Orange Cake.