Although a lot of people try to lose weight, sticking to a diet can be difficult. But not for people with anorexia nervosa, who are expert dieters despite already being seriously underweight. In her PhD research, Renate Neimeijer concluded that there are differences in people’s level of attraction to food. Anorexia patients, for example, are all but immune to the automatic attraction to food that healthy people feel. There are also striking differences between people who who do not manage to diet and those who don’t diet at all. Mood seems to be one of the main factors.
Neimeijer conducted experiments with a group of people with anorexia, a group of unsuccessful dieters and a control group who were not dieting. In the experiment, they were asked to react quickly to pictures of all kinds of tasty food appearing on a computer screen.
One of the aspects being studied in the experiment was attention. Neimeijer wanted to know whether people with anorexia were good at distracting their attention away from food. If you pay less attention to food, you won’t be tempted to eat. This hypothesis turned out to be false. Both people with anorexia and the failed dieters paid more attention to food than people who were not dieting. Neimeijer: ‘Food appears to be very important to both groups and demands their attention. This possibly reinforces their disturbed eating pattern – irrespective of whether this means eating too much or eating too little.’
Neimeijer then examined the automatic response to the pictures of food, once they had attracted the subjects’ attention. Do people with anorexia have the same automatic inclination to approach food as people without an eating disorder? She discovered a difference between people who managed to diet and those who did not in this respect. Anorexia patients showed no automatic inclination to approach the food in the pictures. Neimeijer: ‘This might explain why they are able to maintain their dieting behaviour.’ Unsuccessful dieters had a strong inclination to approach food. ‘This probably explains why they are always seduced into eating more than they had intended’, says Neimeijer.
Interestingly, the automatic inclination to approach food among failed dieters was in particular strong when they felt happy. This only applied to this group, not to the non-dieters. In fact the opposite was true of the non-dieters: they responded more strongly to the pictures of food when they felt sad.
Renate Neimeijer conducted her research at thedepartment of Clinical Psychology and Experimental Psychopathology of the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences, where she works as a researcher and lecturer. She also works as a healthcare psychologist at Accare, the National Expertise Centre for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Neimeijer will be awarded a PhD on 29 March for her thesis ‘Has food lost its attraction in anorexia nervosa? A cognitive approach’.
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