"Just looking at a cake makes me feel fatter"

Have you ever caught yourself staring at sumptuously-formed cake, only to come away with the guilty feeling that the mere act of looking has led you to put on weight? If so, you’re not alone.

Following research showing that people with eating disorders are prone to these irrational thoughts, Jennifer Coelho and colleagues have now confirmed that people without an eating disorder experience them too, though to a lesser extent.

However, that was not the aim of their research. Coelho’s group conducted this study because at least one expert has suggested that people with eating disorders displace their emotional problems onto their bodies, thereby experiencing increased fatness when they’re distressed. To test this, Coelho’s team investigated whether for people with eating disorders, it is specifically thinking about food that can lead to guilty feelings about weight gain, or if anxiety in general can have the same effect.

The researchers asked women with eating disorders and female university students without an eating disorder, to imagine eating a naughty food. As a control, other women with eating disorders and other female university students imagined giving a public presentation.

Imagining eating large quantities of a naughty food led the eating disordered participants, and to a lesser extent the university students, to experience guilt and feelings of weight gain. By contrast, the participants who imagined giving a public presentation did not report these feelings, thus undermining the idea that for people with an eating disorder, it is any kind of anxiety that leads to guilt and a sense of weight gain.

A further, counter-intuitive finding was that a subgroup of the university students – those who reported restricting what they ate – actually did not experience guilt or feelings of weight gain after imagining a naughty food. The researchers said this could be because this group deliberately suppress their food-related thoughts.

The researchers concluded that future research should examine whether it is beneficial for treatment approaches to target the kinds of irrational thoughts examined in this study, or if instead such thoughts will reduce naturally as people recover from their eating disorders.

COELHO, J. (2008). “Just looking at food makes me gain weight”: Experimental induction of thought-shape fusion in eating-disordered and non-eating-disordered women. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 46(2), 219-228. DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2007.11.004

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.