People affected by eating disorders pay more attention to food-related words than to body-shape words, a new study from University of Western Australia says.

Researchers examined how memory updating is affected in those with eating disorders (ED) when the material relates to either food or body shape, and if there was a difference between the two.

In the study, 89 female undergraduates were pre-screened using a questionnaire measuring eating attitudes and behaviours, then underwent a memory updating task involving food words, such as cream, bacon, or body-shape words like chubby, thighs, mixed with neutral words of matched word length and frequency.

Memory Speed

The study was set up to test if people affected by eating disorders would be quicker or more efficient to encode food words into memory, for example when replacing the word ‘desk’ with the word ‘cream’, and slower to encode body-shape words, like when replacing ‘yellow’ with ‘chubby’.

The task was for the participants to memorise a set of words, and then to update their memory repeatedly when some words are replaced with new words.

A second aim was to test whether people with high ED scores have difficulties disengaging from these ED-relevant words. In other words, if they had slower updating when replacing ‘bacon’ with ‘keyboard’.

The first hypothesis was confirmed. The second was not.

Previous Research Refuted

Senior psychology research fellow Ullrich Ecker said that even though previous studies showed that people affected by depression may have difficulties letting go of disease-relevant, negative information, such a pattern was not found in ED.

“We found that people affected by ED took no longer to disengage from food or body words than those not affected."

But participants with high ED scores were indeed quicker at putting food words into memory, and slower at body-shape words. Dr Ecker says food information may be inherently attention-grabbing to a person with an ED-related issue because it has a greater significance attached to it.

However, body-related words may be inherently threatening to a person with an ED-related issue, and all people generally show a tendency to avoid processing threatening information.

“This is basic cognitive research, but it could inform theories of eating disorder development, and could thus potentially inform treatment,” Dr Ecker says.

“Other researchers in our school are using training procedures to modify such processing biases with very promising results."

Fenton, Ecker Memory updating in sub-clinical eating disorder: differential effects with food and body shape words Eat Behav. 2015 Apr;17:103-6. doi: 10.1016/j.eatbeh.2015.01.008

Photo: Farouq Taj/flickr

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