Vitality

Eliminating Food Cravings May Be As Easy As Looking At Images Of Bugs, Vomit

Cockroach Cravings
Cockroaches can be used to curb unhealthy cravings. Photo courtesy of Flickr, Jonas

Priming television viewers with subliminal messaging was banned from advertising because of its power to boost cravings, but researchers from the University of Colorado School of Medicine have figured out how to use the same approach to kill cravings. Their findings, scheduled to be published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition next week, demonstrates how disgusting photographs can taint treats.

The research team flashed a photo of a disgusting image for 20 milliseconds, followed by a four-second photo of a commonly advertised high-calorie treat to 42 study participants. Because they were flashed photos of cockroaches, vomit, burn wounds before photos of ice cream sundaes, pizza, and french fries, participants had no conscious memory of it. As a result, they were disgusted immediately afterwards and lost their appetite, and three to five days after the experiment, the participants still found those items less appetizing than they did prior.

"This outcome suggests that pairing feelings of disgust with [unhealthy foods] could reduce the likelihood of choosing these foods," the authors wrote in the study. The strategy "could be a successful tactic to combat the onslaught of food cues that promote unhealthy eating."

The experiment is not without limitations. Aside from the small study group, the researchers didn’t measure each participant’s weight or inquire about their personal eating habits, which makes the results less conclusive. It isn’t clear whether or not the experiment is reflective of their day-to-day dietary habits or if the subliminal messaging had a meaningful impact.

Still, researchers wanted to see if the opposite effect would work, by making low-calorie foods appealing with the help of appealing primer photos. Instead of disgusting photos, participants were shown photos of kittens, a smiling baby, and a butterfly on a flower followed by photos of salad and fruit. Unfortunately, it did not increase the participants’ desire to eat healthy, low-calorie items.

"When it comes to food behavior, disgust can be very powerful," said the study’s co-author Kristina Legget, a psychiatry professor from University of Colorado’s Medical School, told The Washington Post. "Kittens and babies are not as powerful as mutilation and contamination."

Using subliminal messaging to change food habits has promise on children-friendly television channels. The influence of food advertising starts at youth. Previously, a study published in the journal Health Psychology, found children consumed 45 percent more snack foods when exposed to food advertising. 

According to the Health Psychology study, children are 37 percent more likely to become overweight if they’re overweight as children, and health authorities believe the accumulation of unhealthy ads targeted towards children are a leading cause of unhealthy food consumption. Snacking in between meals occurred 58 percent of the time while children watched television, giving more power to the marketing industry.

Source: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.2015.

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