Flexibility Can Support Healthy Eating Behaviours among Women

Flexibility Can Support Healthy Eating Behaviours among Women
17th April 2024 Moriah Aharon

A recent study at the Hebrew University aimed to improve attitudes toward food in women with restrained eating habits who monitor their diet by training them to respond more flexibly to food cues. The results indicated that only participants in the flexible response group showed increased positivity toward food. This research underscores the potential benefits of promoting flexible responses to food cues, providing valuable insights for interventions to enhance eating behaviours and attitudes in this population. Such interventions could greatly benefit individuals with controlled eating habits, offering valuable insights for improving their eating behaviours and attitudes, potentially leading to healthier relationships with food and improved overall well-being.

A new study led by PhD student Shir Berebbi and team under the guidance of researcher Prof. Eyal Kalanthroff at the Psychology Department at the Hebrew University unveiled findings indicating that women who watch their diet can significantly enhance their attitudes toward high-calorie foods through a flexible response to food-related stimuli. The findings were clear: the group that used the flexible response method had a big boost in liking high-calorie foods after the program. The other groups didn’t show any noticeable change in how they felt about food. This shows that when people with controlled eating habits balance how they react to food cues, they can feel better about what they eat.

Restrained eaters typically maintain a chronic avoidance of eating to control weight, leading to a negative emotional response towards food. Previous attempts to disrupt this pattern by encouraging the complete elimination of inhibitory food responses resulted in increased food consumption but also elevated food-related anxiety.

The study involved 78 female participants identified through the Dutch Eating Behaviour Questionnaire for their restrained eating patterns, characterized by chronic dieting and food intake control. Researchers used psychological tests like the Implicit Association Test (IAT) and Food Stop-Signal Task (F-SST) to assess subconscious food attitudes and impulse control. A bogus taste test measured actual food consumption. The study also introduced a flexible food response task, where participants had to either respond to or inhibit their response to different food stimuli, pioneering new approaches to understanding eating behaviours.

The results were prominent as only the group exposed to the flexible response protocol showed a significant improvement in positive attitudes toward high-calorie foods after the intervention, with no observable changes in the negative attitudes among the other groups. This outcome suggests that a balanced approach to responding and inhibiting food cues can foster more positive emotional reactions to food among those with restrained eating behaviours.

Moreover, the flexible response training demonstrated promising potential in moderating how participants engaged in a seemingly unrelated bogus taste test, showcasing more balanced eating behaviours compared to other groups.

“Our findings are pivotal as they suggest a new therapeutic avenue that could potentially aid individuals with disordered eating patterns to redefine their attitudes towards food,” said PhD student Shir Berebbi. “By advocating for flexibility rather than rigid response or inhibition, we can support more sustainable and healthy eating behaviours.”

This study offers a fresh perspective on treatment and support for individuals struggling with restrained eating and proposes that encouraging a balanced approach to food cues may prove more beneficial than methods that promote extreme responses.

The research paper titled “Fostering positive attitudes toward food in individuals with restrained eating: the impact of flexible food-related inhibition” is now available in Journal of Eating Disorders and can be accessed at HERE

Shir Berebbi1, Hadar Naftalovich1, Noam Weinbach2, Eyal Kalanthroff1,3
1) Department of Psychology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel
2) School of Psychological Sciences, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
3) Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, USA

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The Hebrew University of Jerusalem is Israel’s premier academic and research institution. Serving over 23,000 students from 80 countries, the University produces nearly 40% of Israel’s civilian scientific research and has received over 11,000 patents. Faculty and alumni of the Hebrew University have won eight Nobel Prizes and a Fields Medal. For more information about the Hebrew University, please visit http://new.huji.ac.il/en.