The University of Houston’s Tracey Ledoux, assistant professor of health and human performance, is using an innovative approach to studying food addictions in hopes of finding strategies to assess and treat them.
“There is a growing body of research that shows that consumption of palatable food stimulates the same reward and motivation centers of the brain that recognized addictive drugs do,” Ledoux said. “These cravings are related to overeating, unsuccessful weight loss and obesity.”
Ledoux and Professor Patrick Bordnick, director of the UH Graduate College of Social Work‘s Virtual Reality Lab, will use virtual environments to try to induce food cravings. Bordnick’s body of research has focused on addictive behaviors and phobias and has used virtual reality as a tool to assess and treat them.
In this new investigation, participants will wear a virtual reality helmet to enter a “real -world” restaurant, complete with all the sights, sounds and smells. A joystick will allow them to walk to a buffet, encounter waitstaff and other patrons.
“Virtual reality will allow us to identify food and food-related stimuli of the built, home, school and social environment that cue food cravings, which has public policy, public health and clinical treatment implications,” Ledoux said. “Our study is innovative because it provides a very effective, cost-efficient tool that can be used to increase our understanding of food cravings.”
Ledoux is recruiting normal-weight women who do not have dietary restrictions or are trying to lose weight. Participants will be invited to two appointments, which may last between 30 minutes and an hour, and will receive a small compensation plus a chance to win a Kindle e-reader. For more information contact Tracey Ledoux at 713-743-1870 or TALedoux@uh.edu.
“Obesity is a pervasive and intractable problem with significant public health and economic costs in our society,” she said. “Finding the elements that promote overeating is critical for reversing the dangerous obesity trend.”
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This article highlights how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is being integrated into weight loss programs for emotional eaters.
How many times have you, after a particularly hard day, reached for some chocolate or ice cream? It’s common for many people, but for those trying to lose weight, it can be detrimental to their long term success, and most weight-loss programs never even address it.
Researchers at Temple’s Center for Obesity Research are trying to figure out the answer as part of a new, NIH-funded weight loss study. The new treatment incorporates skills that directly address the emotional eating, and essentially adds those skills to a state-of-the art behavioral weight loss treatment.
“The problem that we’re trying to address is that the success rates for long-term weight loss are not as good as we would like them to be,” said Edie Goldbacher, a postdoctoral fellow at CORE. “Emotional eating may be one reason why people don’t do as well in behavioral weight loss groups, because these groups don’t address emotional eating or any of its contributing factors.”
The study has already had one wave of participants come through, and many participants have seen some success in the short term, but have also learned the skills to help them achieve long term success.
Janet Williams, part of that first cohort, said she lost about 17 pounds over 22 weeks, and still uses some of the techniques she learned in the study to help maintain her weight, which has not fluctuated.
“The program doesn’t just help you identify when you eat,” said Williams. “It helps you recognize triggers that make you eat, to help you break that cycle of reaching for food every time you feel bored, or frustrated, or sad.”
Williams said that the program teaches various techniques to help break that cycle, such as the “conveyor belt,” in which participants, when overcome with a specific emotion, can recognize it and take a step back, before reaching for chips or cookies, and put those feelings on their mental “conveyor belt” and watch them go away.
“I still use the skills I learned in the study,” she said. “I’ve learned to say, ‘I will not allow this emotional episode to control my eating habits.'”
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A new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms what many confused shoppers, dieters, and investors know first-hand: when a decision is difficult, we go with the status quo or choose to do nothing. [..
..] Researchers from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London created a computerized decision-making task. Participants viewed a series of visual tests that asked them to play a referee making a sports call (e.g., whether a tennis ball bounced in our out of bounds).
Before each test, participants were told that one of the responses (in or out) was the “default” for this round. They were asked to hold down a key while they watched. If they continued to hold down the key, they were choosing the default. If they lifted their finger, they were choosing the non-default. Importantly, the default response (in or out) switched randomly between rounds, so that a participant’s response bias (to make a call in or out) would not be confused with their tendency to stick with the status quo.
The researchers were interested in two questions:
1) Does the difficulty of the decision influence the participants’ likelihood of choosing the default?
2) Is there a neural signature for choosing the default vs. overriding the status quo? [..
As the researchers].. predicted, participants were more likely to stick with the default when the decision was difficult. It didn’t matter whether the default was in or out. If they couldn’t make a confident choice, they essentially chose to do nothing. And as the researchers point out, this tendency led to more errors.
What was happening in the participants’ brains as they chose? The researchers observed an interesting pattern when participants went against the default in a difficult decision. There was increased activity in, and increased connectivity between, two regions: the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and an area of the midbrain called the subthalamic nucleus (STN). The PFC is well-known to be involved in decision-making and self-control. The STN is thought to be important for motivating action.
The researcher’s analyses couldn’t determine for sure what the relationship between the PFC and STN was, but the observations were consistent with the idea that the PFC was driving, or boosting, activity in the STN.
These brain analyses suggest that going against the default in difficult decisions requires some kind of extra motivation or confidence. Otherwise, the decider in our mind is puzzled, and the doer in our mind is paralyzed
Knowing this can help explain why changing habits can be so difficult. If you aren’t sure why you’re changing, don’t fully believe you’re making the right choice, or question whether what you’re doing will work, you’re likely to settle back on your automatic behaviors. That’s why self-efficacy-the belief that you can make a change and overcome obstacles-is one of the best predictors of successful change. The decider and the doer need a boost of confidence.
It also helps explain why we love formulaic diets, investment strategies, and other decision aids. Formulas feel scientific, tested, and promising. They also give us a new default. We can rely on the rules (no eating after 7 PM, automatically invest X% of your income in mutual funds twice a month) when we’re feeling overwhelmed. A new automatic makes change much easier.
So next time you’re trying to make a change, figure out what your current default is, and remind yourself exactly why it isn’t working. Then look for ways to change your default (clean out your fridge, set up direct deposit) so you don’t have to fight the old default as often. And feel free to be your own cheerleader when the going gets rough. Look for the first evidence (a pound lost here, a dwindling credit card statement there) that what you’re doing is paying off. The status quo is seductive, and we all need a little encouragement to lift our fingers off the keyboard..
Fleming, S.M., Thomas, C.L., & Dolan, R.J. Overcoming status quo bias in the human brain. PNAS. Published online before print March 15, 2010. doi:10.1073/pnas.0910380107