Making healthy eating automatic – interventions can change impulses to snack

What if healthy eating was easy and automatic instead of effortful and involving lots of willpower? Current research from the University of Helsinki shows that interventions relying on the idea that impulses can be re-learned can improve dietary choices. This is achieved by performing a computer task that shows tasty foods and then asks users not to react to them, against a behavioral impulse triggered by the food.

The study shows that food intake can be reduced after as little as 10 minutes of training but it remains unclear whether more training also leads to larger effects.

Members of the Behavior Change and Well-being research group at the University of Helsinki have just published a review of the effects of these automatic process interventions for healthy eating. Their analysis of 30 independent studies that used different computer tasks to reduce unhealthy eating concludes that they can work – when done right.

In these tasks, participants were asked to show a reaction towards pictures of unhealthy foods that was against their impulse triggered by that food.

- This could mean that they had to refrain from responding at all or push a computer joystick to imitate pushing food away from themselves. After some time of practice, they consumed less unhealthy food than a control group that had done a similar task, says Matthias Aulbach, a doctoral candidate from University of Helsinki.

Participants learned to consistently inhibit their response

The data showed that it is important that participants learned to consistently inhibit their response when encountering pictures of desirable yet unhealthy foods such as chocolate, pizza, or chips.

- This way an association built up between the food items and stopping. There was also some evidence that this leads to participants liking the foods in question less than they had before, Aulbach states.

While these initial results show that automatic process interventions have some potential in improving diets in the short term, more research is needed to examine their effects in the longer term and outside of laboratory settings.

- Another open question is whether they work for everyone or only specific groups of people.

Future research within the Behavior Change and Well-being research group will examine the effects of these intervention on a larger scale, and using smartphone apps instead of desktop computers to see whether effects persist over time and whether repeated training might reduce unhealthy snacking even further.

The idea of these interventions is to reduce or eliminate the automatic impulses to eat unhealthy foods like chocolate instead of learning to overcome them with traditional deliberative means.

- If there is no impulse to resist in the first place, healthy eating becomes automatic and does not require much willpower, Aulbach notes.

A version of the article can be accessed via the University of Helsinki’s research database, and the published article is available from Taylor and Francis.

Further information:
Matthias Aulbach
Tel: +358 45 787 25277

Social psychology research area