Primed to Eat: Susceptibility to Healthy Hints


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Cookies are an example of a hedonistic food choice: Image by Yuri Long

How nudge the public to win the battle of the bulge? Perhaps something as small as a hint is enough to curb a dieter’s negative eating habits.

With obesity rates soaring, health researcher Esther Papies of Netherland’s Utrecht University, reports in  the Society for the Study of Ingestive  Behavior that “novel  cost-effective strategies” have been identified to help win the war – primarily the use of ‘healthy hints.’

Previous research identified words and experiences that reduced dieters will-power, but the new research of Papies and her colleagues has identified ways that public health officials and others interested in affecting our weight can wield a positive influence to improve will-power and encourage better dieting choices.

Weight Loss, Toxic Environments, and Restrained Eaters

People who attempt to control their weight often show restraint, and then lapse. These yo-yo dieters, called “retrained eaters,” face a toxic environment where tasty, high calorie food is openly displayed and readily available. While it is no surprise to those  who struggle with weight gain, researchers found that restrained eaters possess hedonistic responses to tasty foods. Those with weight problems, in other words, enjoy eating, and find it especially hard to refrain from tasting that freshly baked cookie, crispy french fry, or hunk of aged cheddar.

Dieting and The Power of  Subliminal Primes

In those studied, just hearing food words such as “chocolate” or “delicious” decreased inhibition in those trying to control their food intake. Words or images that influence behavior are termed “primes,” and work similarly to priming a pump. The researchers found that, according to earlier research, snack food advertisements on television can serve as real-life primes, and may lead to increased eating behavior. This led to the question – could healthy primes could also influence a more positive behavior?

Papies studied the effects of diet primes on actual eating behavior, and found that posting healthy reminders in stores helped weight conscious individuals refrain from snacking on  samples. People unconcerned about their weight were not similarly affected, which is in line with previous research that suggests that individuals needed to be motivated to achieve the goal associated with the prime.

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