Forget Atkins -- False Memories Fight Flab, Study Says

August 2, 2005

Just as the Atkins diet fad goes belly up—the Atkins Nutritionals company filed for bankruptcy on Sunday—a new, mind-bending anti-obesity technique may be on the way.

The potential treatment relies not on diets, medications, or workouts but on tricks played on the mind.

U.S. researchers say they can put people off fattening foods by tricking them into believing the foods made them sick as a child. This is achieved by planting false memories of past culinary encounters.

Similar mind games could be deployed around the family dinner table on sweet-toothed children, the study team reports in the Proceedings of the National of Academy of Sciences' current Online Early Edition.

During the study, the researchers told adult volunteers that data suggested they fell ill after eating strawberry ice cream as children—a patent falsehood.

Up to 40 percent of the test subjects fell for the deceit and added that they would steer clear of strawberry ice cream in the future.

The volunteers were more likely to be duped if they were asked to imagine the childhood experience of being sick after eating ice cream—even if they couldn't remember this ever happening.

"Imagining an experience adds sensory detail to the subjective experience, making it seem more like a real memory," explained Elizabeth F. Loftus, co-author of the report.

Loftus, a psychology professor at the University of California, Irvine, says the experiment followed up previous successes in planting false memories involving pickles and hard-boiled eggs.

"The [new] study reports the first work that shows you can get this result with a fattening food," she said.

Memory Lapses

Loftus says some individuals seem more open to suggestion than others, noting that previous studies show that people who tend to have lapses in memory and attention are more likely to adopt false memories.

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