Using stop signals to reduce impulsive choices for palatable unhealthy foods

Authors


Correspondence should be addressed to Harm Veling, Department of Psychology, Utrecht University, 80140, 3508 TC Utrecht, The Netherlands (e-mail: h.veling@uu.nl).

Abstract

Objective

Exposure to palatable foods in the environment can trigger impulsive reactions to obtain them, which may lead to unhealthy food choices and eating behaviour. Two studies tested the fundamental question whether impulsive unhealthy food choices can be altered by means of linking unhealthy palatable foods to behavioural stop signals.

Design

Study 1 adopted a 2 (signal condition: stop signal vs. control) by 2 (appetite: low vs. high) between-subjects design. Study 2 adopted a 2 (signal condition: stop signal vs. control) between-subjects design with frequency to consume unhealthy palatable foods as a continuous factor.

Methods

Participants performed a task in which behavioural stop signals were either consistently (or not) presented in close temporal proximity to unhealthy palatable snack foods. Next, participants were given the opportunity to select snacks that they would like to consume.

Results

Two studies showed that participants were less likely to select unhealthy palatable foods that had been presented near stop signals, and that they selected healthy foods instead. Importantly, this reduction in choices for palatable foods was especially observed when participants' appetite was relatively high (Study 1), or when this food was part of their habit to frequently consume this food (Study 2).

Conclusion

These findings show that a short stop signal intervention in which palatable foods are presented in close temporal proximity of stop signals can reduce palatable food choices by modifying an impulsive determinant of eating behaviour.

Statement of contribution

What is already known on this subject? Exposure to unhealthy palatable foods in the environment can lead to impulsive food choices. People's habits towards unhealthy palatable foods and their current state of appetite are important determinants of such impulsive food choices. This impulsive behaviour is hard to change.

What this study add?

  • Linking unhealthy palatable foods to behavioural stop signals reduces choices for these foods, and increases healthy food choices.
  • This effect is particularly strong when people's food choices are driven by their current state of appetite or habits.
  • Behavioural stop signals foster healthy eating behaviour by modifying an impulsive determinant of behaviour.

Ancillary