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Chocolate study reveals impact of body image on food decision-making

Picture of by Dr. Raphaëlle O'Connor

by Dr. Raphaëlle O'Connor

Raphaelle has over 25 years’ experience in the ideation,
development, and commercialisation of food chemistry,
food science, food technology, and nutrition.

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A new study has delved into the complex relationship between body image perception and food-related decision-making. The study aimed to explore whether individuals who perceive themselves as mentally obese, despite not being physically obese, exhibit distinct responses to food stimuli during decision-making tasks. The findings, based on behavioural and neural correlations, provide valuable insights into the impact of negative body image on food choices and executive functioning among young adults.

What is “fatness subscale”?

Before we delve into the details of the study, it is important to understand key terminology. The “fatness subscale” refers to a specific aspect of how people perceive their body size and weight. It’s a way to measure how individuals feel about their own weight, regardless of their actual physical appearance. This subscale helps researchers understand how people’s thoughts and emotions about their body size can affect their behaviours, particularly when it comes to food choices.

For example, someone might have a negative body image at fatness subscale if they feel like they are overweight or “fat” even though they may not be physically obese. This perception of themselves as overweight can lead to different attitudes towards food and eating habits. Some individuals with this negative body image may be more conscious of their food choices, trying to eat less or avoid certain foods, while others may have a different relationship with food, seeking comfort in eating or experiencing guilt after eating.

By studying the fatness subscale, food scientists and researchers alike can better understand how thoughts and feelings about bodies influence behaviours and decisions related to food. This understanding can help develop strategies to promote healthier eating habits and improve overall well-being.

Study Results 

Researchers from Southwest University, Chongqing in China, investigated the differences in food-related decision-making between two groups: young adults with negative body image at fatness subscale and a control group. The study utilised a time-delayed discounting task (DDT) and involved 13 young female adults in each group who participated in an electroencephalogram (EEG) experiment. The DDT task required participants to choose between low immediate rewards (chocolates available right away) and high delayed rewards (more chocolates, but available after a waiting period). The number of selections for each type of reward served as an indicator of performance in the DDT.

1. Distinct Decision-Making Behaviour 

The behavioural results revealed a significant interaction effect between selection types and groups. Young adults with negative body image at fatness subscale showed a more restrained approach to food-related decision-making, as they selected more delayed rewards (opting for higher quantities of chocolates after waiting) and fewer immediate rewards (choosing fewer chocolates available immediately) compared to the control group.

2. Absence of BMI Correlation 

Interestingly, while the control group showed statistical correlations between body mass index (BMI) and selection times, this phenomenon did not occur in the group with negative body image at fatness subscale. This suggests that individuals’ food-related decision-making in the experimental group was not directly influenced by their physical body size or weight.

3. Neural Correlations

The study also explored the neural aspects of food-related decision-making using event-related potentials (ERPs) derived from the EEG data. The P100 amplitude, which reflects early perception of stimuli, was significantly larger in young adults with negative body image at fatness subscale compared to the control group when exposed to food-related stimuli. Additionally, the P200 amplitude, related to decision-making, displayed a significant interaction effect between groups, electrodes, and selection types.

4. Impulsivity and Cognitive Processing

Both groups exhibited more negative N200 and N450 amplitudes when considering delayed rewards, indicating increased cognitive processing during decision-making related to delayed gratification. The N200 and N450 responses, reflecting response conflict to stimuli, were more pronounced for delayed rewards.

What does this mean for food scientists?

Whilst the study was conducted with a relatively small sample size might, we noted 3 notable links between body image perception and food-related decision-making:

1. Mental Body Image and Eating Behaviour

The study highlights the importance of mental self-perception in shaping individuals’ eating behaviours. Young adults with negative body image at fatness subscale demonstrated a more restrained approach to food, indicating their attempt to control their food intake to improve body satisfaction.

2. Beyond Physical Obesity

The research draws attention to the fact that food-related decision-making may not be limited to individuals with physiological obesity. Even among individuals with normal BMI, negative body image can significantly influence their choices and behaviours related to food.

3. Interdisciplinary Collaboration 

Understanding the impact of negative body image on decision-making can open doors for tailored solutions across scientific disciplines. 

By bridging food science and psychology, researchers can gain deeper insights into the psychological mechanisms underlying food-related decision-making. Understanding how mental self-perception, like negative body image at fatness subscale, influences food choices can inform the development of targeted interventions to support individuals in making healthier dietary decisions. Moreover, this interdisciplinary approach is vital in addressing the growing concern of disordered eating behaviours, body dissatisfaction, and the increasing prevalence of weight-related issues worldwide.

Psychological research also plays a pivotal role in understanding eating disorders and promoting positive attitudes towards food and body image. By exploring how cognitive processes, such as impulse control, delayed gratification, and attentional biases, impact food choices, psychologists can contribute to the development of effective strategies to foster mindful eating and improve overall well-being.

As food science continues to evolve, the integration of psychological insights into food-related research will be essential for crafting evidence-based dietary guidelines, creating more engaging and effective health interventions, and addressing the complex interplay between food, mind, and body. Ultimately, the collaboration between food science and psychology holds immense promise in shaping healthier eating behaviours and promoting a positive relationship with food and one’s body image.

By addressing mental self-perception and promoting a positive body image, targeted strategies could be developed to support healthier eating behaviours.

The study provides valuable evidence of how negative body image at fatness subscale affects food-related decision-making among young adults. The distinct behaviours and neural responses observed in individuals with negative body image highlight the importance of addressing mental self-perception in promoting healthy eating behaviours. These findings contribute to the ongoing discussions about body image perception and its impact on overall well-being, paving the way for future research and customised nutrition solutions to support individuals in cultivating a positive body image and making informed food choices.

Huo, S.; Li, J.; Guo, J.; Yan, H.; Deng, X.; Liu, Y.; Zhao, J. Young Adults with Negative Body Image at Fatness Subscale Are More Restrained Than Normal Adults during a Chocolate Discounting Task. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2023, 20, 6122.

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