Forget Atkins -- False Memories Fight Flab, Study Says

James Owen
for National Geographic News
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.

Peter Rogers, a nutrition and behavior professor at Bristol University in England, described the latest findings as "fascinating," adding that they could lead to a new way to treat people who suffer from obesity.

"In many ways we understand how appetites are controlled and how food preferences develop," Rogers said. "But what we don't have are the tools for changing our preferences."

He says the research taps into our aversion to certain foods—a strong influence on how our food preferences are shaped.

"It's well known that if we eat something and get sick afterward, the likelihood is that we develop an aversion for that food," he said. "It can lead to quite a powerful dislike of the food that was associated with the sickness, even if the individual is consciously aware that the food itself didn't make them sick."

"A lot of food aversions occur in childhood," Rogers added.

He says this may be because children tend to get sick more often and also because they have less control of what they eat. "For instance, they can often have a very strong dislike of banana, possibly because it's often used as an early weaning food," he said.

Rogers says there are possible lessons here for parents keen to instil healthy eating habits in their children.

"It might be that an overenthusiastic parent feeds them rather too much of something [that's healthy]," he explained. "We can do more harm than good in that way."

Parents often use dessert as an incentive for children to finish their vegetables. "It ought to be the other way round: If you eat your ice-cream you can have some sprouts," Rogers said. "That way the child will think sprouts must be pretty good."

The Asparagus Experiment

So can a good experience of a healthy food also be planted through false memory?

The U.S. researchers believe it can. They conducted another experiment where they tried to make people believe they loved asparagus the first time they ate it as children. Again the team's success rate was as high as 40 percent. Elizabeth Loftus says parents could try playing a similar mind game, falsely telling their children they enjoyed certain wholesome foods when they were younger.

Critics might question the ethics of lying to change a person's behavior, even if the fibbing could lead to improved health.

"Of course this is a provocative idea that will give people pause," Loftus said. "But in our society we have found other situations where we've had to 'force' people to do something for their own good."

She cites seat belt laws as an example. "Until [wearing seat belts in automobiles was] made mandatory, many people skipped the belting. Now people have accepted the idea and many think it is a good idea."

The new psychological treatment could help tackle the growing problem of obesity in the U.S. and elsewhere, Loftus says.

Obesity significantly increases the risk of many diseases and health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and breast and colon cancer.

The latest figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 30 percent of U.S. adults—over 60 million people—are obese. And the percentage of young people who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980.

Obesity is associated with at least 112,000 deaths annually and adds an estimated 75 billion dollars in medical costs each year in the U.S., according to the CDC.

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