Food: Can we fight temptation?

Dr Emma Davies reports from the Society's Annual Conference.

Two thirds of adults are now classified as overweight or obese: Psychologists at the Annual Conference presented novel research studies designed to understand and change behaviour around food. 

Dr Amy Ahern (MRC Centre for Human Nutrition Research) explained that average portion sizes have increased over the last 25 years; individual pies for example, are 40 per cent larger. Dr Ahern and colleagues’ research suggests that reducing the size of just one meal a day could help people to control their weight.

But what happens when we are tempted by unhealthy treats at the supermarket? Dr Milica Vasiljevic (University of Cambridge) has been exploring the impact of adding smiling or frowning face emoticons to snack bar labels. Her research suggests that by signifying approval or disapproval we may be able to change people’s desire for food. Of course, it is unlikely that we would be able to find many food manufacturers willing to add a frowning face to their product, but this research is able to add important insights to our understanding of social norms and food. Dr Eric Robinson from the University of Liverpool found that lying to participants about the amount that other people had eaten significantly increased their calorie consumption, thus reinforcing the importance of social influences on food intake.  

Another researcher, Dr Charlotte Hardman, also based at the University of Liverpool, suggested that we might be able to train ourselves pay more attention to healthy foods than unhealthy foods. This type of training could help people who struggle to resist the lure of the chocolate bar to replace their calorie loaded snack with a healthy piece of fruit. With obesity now estimated to cost the NHS more than five billion pounds each year, the significance of the work that these psychologists presented cannot be overstated. Understanding more about what influences overeating and weight gain will have a real impact on people’s health and wellbeing.

- More reports from the Society's Annual Conference will appear on this site over the coming days and weeks, with extras in the July print edition. Find out more about next year's event

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