Retraining the Brain to Prevent Disordered Eating: Approach Versus Avoidance
Jones, Maegan Elizabeth
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Emerging adult college women are at particular risk for developing unhealthy eating habits. Despite this, methods of intervention in this population are understudied. This study sought to test whether an implicit, cognitive retraining program could alter how women approach foods. Specifically, the researcher wanted to determine if the Behavioral Activation System (BAS), which encourages individuals to approach positive goals, and the Behavioral Inhibition System (BIS), which helps individuals avoid negative outcomes, could be manipulated. Thus, this study examined whether a dot-probe retraining program could significantly alter women’s approaches to healthy foods. Dot-probe programs present two pictures side-by-side; when the pictures disappear, a stimulus, in this case a “+”, appears where one of the pictures was previously located. In this project, participants assigned to an experimental training program would have the “+” located under healthy foods most of the time, in order to encourage BAS activation and approach behaviors. In addition, because it is imperative to understand how women’s families affect their thin ideal internalization (i.e., drive for thinness and restraint) and their approach/avoidance habits, the quality of past and current parent-daughter relationships were examined. Indeed, no known research has examined how the parent-child relationship may affect BAS/BIS usage. Forty emerging adult women were recruited; half were assigned to an experimental training group, while the other half completed a sham training group, in which they equally reacted to all foods. Participants were asked to complete five sessions on their own devices, in their chosen environment. By the final training sessions, those in the experimental group (n = 15) reacted to healthy foods two times faster than those in the sham group (n = 15). In addition, a series of moderation analyses found that, even when participants had high levels of thin ideal internalization, positive parenting characteristics such as a current high-quality mother-daughter relationship and past low paternal control improved participants’ reaction times to healthy foods. These findings suggest that a combination of both a biologically-based method of intervention and a family systems intervention may lead women to have healthier approaches to foods, thereby potentially preventing the development of unhealthy eating habits.