A Detective on the Eating Case


Childhood Obesity News has been looking at various kinds of therapy, particularly the type that doesn’t involve spending months or thousands of dollars, which led to finding “How to curb hunger pangs with your mind.” This possibility is suggested by research fellow Eric Robinson, who is a University of Liverpool behavioral scientist interested in experimental psychology. He has explored such questions as whether the awareness of social influence on eating behavior, which is pretty widely accepted as significant, is actually a factor in the amount that someone eats.

While not denying that hunger originates with chemical signals from gut hormones, he also credits the mind with abetting in the formation of appetite. Maybe, just maybe, thinking about the most recent meal can help a person refrain from eating too soon, or too much.

This notion was helped along by the work of another experimental psychologist, Glyn Humphreys, of the University of Oxford. Anterograde amnesia is an extreme form of short-term memory loss, and Prof. Humphreys determined that a person who has it will happily eat a big meal only 15 minutes after finishing another big meal. Because of the inability to recall the first meal, a person with a full stomach can feel as hungry as one who hasn’t eaten since breakfast.

Fortunately, anterograde amnesia is rare, and surely the people who suffer from it are watched over, and prevented from eating 20 meals per day. Maybe it’s not such a big deal.

But journalist David Robson backgrounds the discussion of Robinson’s work by recalling that of Jeff Brunstrom, of the University of Bristol, who demonstrated how easily a healthy brain can be fooled:

His subjects thought their task was simple: to eat a bowl of soup. Unbeknown to them, Brunstrom had hooked up a pipe that passed through the table and into the bowl, which allowed him to top-up some of his subjects’ soup without them noticing. He found that their later snacking depended almost entirely on the appearance of the bowl at the start of the meal — whether it seemed big or small — and very little on the actual amount he had fed them.

That sounds a lot like what happens to people whose wine goblets are constantly topped up by servers, so they don’t realize how drunk they are. Prof. Brunstrom also discovered that people who ate with one hand and played solitaire with the other would eat more cookies later on — apparently, because they were unable to form a coherent memory of their most recent meal.

Robinson experimented with a three-minute recording that reminded ham-sandwich eaters to consume their food mindfully and to focus fully on the sensual experiences. The control group ate their ham sandwiches while listening to bird calls. The test came later, with the snacking opportunity that both groups shared. The mindful savorers, who could remember their meal, snacked 30% less than the bird-call subjects.

Robinson found that merely asking a person to consciously remember previous consumption could put a lid on the desire for food later in the day. The writer says:

Your imagination may even offer a helping hand: a team in Pennsylvania has found that visualising your cravings, in full detail, seems to trick the mind into thinking it has actually eaten the snack — reducing desire and actual consumption.

Based on the premise that savoring food can be a great and useful habit, Robinson is reportedly developing an app that will remind a person to mentally relive the day’s previous meals.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “How to curb hunger pangs with your mind,” BBC.com, 01/22/15
Source: “Awareness of social influence on food intake. An analysis of two experimental studies,” NIH.gov, February 2015
Photo credit: dynamosquito via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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