Women with eating disorders can receive assistance on food perception

Science and Health

“Restrained eaters” are people who chronically avoid eating to reduce their weight, adopting restrictive diets to control their weight and negative attitudes towards food. Eating disorders have been linked to high rates of depression, stress, abnormal attitudes toward weight and eating, and low self-esteem. 

Now, women who suffer from eating disorders (the problem is more common among females than males) can be helped to improve their attitudes toward food by being trained to respond more flexibly to food cues. 

A new study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) showed that only participants in the flexible-response group showed a more positive attitude toward food. 

This research by doctoral student Shir Berebbi under the guidance of psychology Prof. Eyal Kalanthroff said that it provided valuable insights for interventions to enhance eating behaviors and attitudes in those with eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and more.

They published their study in the Journal of Eating Disorders under the title “Fostering positive attitudes toward food in individuals with restrained eating: the impact of flexible food-related inhibition.” 


“Such interventions could greatly benefit individuals” 

“Such interventions could greatly benefit individuals with controlled eating habits, offering valuable insights for improving their eating behaviors and attitudes, potentially leading to healthier relationships with food and improved overall well-being,” they said. 

The group that used the flexible response method had a big boost in liking high-calorie foods after the program, while other groups failed to show any noticeable change in how they felt about food. 

This shows that when people with controlled eating habits balance how they react to food cues, they can feel better about what they eat, they suggested. 

Restrained eaters typically maintain a chronic avoidance of eating to control weight, leading to a negative emotional response towards food. 

Previous attempts to disrupt this pattern by encouraging the complete elimination of inhibitory food responses resulted in increased food consumption but also elevated food-related anxiety. 

The study included 78 female participants identified through the Dutch Eating Behavior Questionnaire for their restrained eating patterns, characterized by chronic dieting and controlling their food intake and assessed subconscious food attitudes and impulse control. 

A bogus taste test measured actual food consumption. The study also introduced a flexible food-response task in which participants had to either respond to or inhibit their response to different food stimuli, pioneering new approaches to understanding eating behaviors.

Only the group exposed to the flexible response protocol showed a significant improvement in positive attitudes toward high-calorie foods after the intervention, with no observable changes in the negative attitudes among the other groups. 

This outcome suggested that a balanced approach to responding and inhibiting food cues could foster more positive emotional reactions to food among those with restrained eating behaviors.

Flexible response training showed promising potential in moderating how participants engaged in a seemingly unrelated bogus taste test, showcasing more balanced eating behaviors compared to other groups. 

“Our findings are pivotal as they suggest a new therapeutic avenue that could potentially aid individuals with disordered eating patterns to redefine their attitudes towards food,” Berebbi noted. 

“By advocating for flexibility rather than rigid response or inhibition, we can support more sustainable and healthy eating behaviors.”