By Katherine Gombay
Bärbel Knäuper wants to help you change your ways and improve your health. Much of the McGill psychology professor’s recent research explores ways of getting people to change their habits, particularly their eating habits.
“We now know that something like half the chronic diseases that we develop in the second halves of our lives are related to habits that we have developed in the first part of our lives, things like smoking, substance abuse and poor nutrition,” said Knäuper. ”If we understand how these habits are formed, then we can learn how to change them and improve people’s quality of life along with their life expectancy.”
But, according to Knäuper, research shows that it’s not as simple as just telling people to change the way they eat. Instead, her current work with children and students studies the effectiveness of using such techniques as play and visualization to help change eating habits. One recent study involved asking 177 students at McGill’s New Residence Hall to consume more fruit for a period of seven days. All the students who took part in the study ate more fruit over the course of the week. But those who were asked not simply to eat more fruit, but to both make a concrete plan and visualize how, when and where they were going to buy and eat it, doubled their fruit consumption compared with those who simply had the intention of doing so.
These kinds of visualization techniques are borrowed from sports psychology and point to a simple but effective way of changing eating habits.
“Athletes do lots of work mentally rehearsing their performances before competing and it’s often very successful. So we thought having people mentally rehearse how they were going to buy and eat their fruit should make it more likely that they would actually do it. And this is exactly what happened,” said Knäuper. “It’s a technique I use a lot myself and it works for me, so I thought it might work for others.”
Because it’s clear eating habits are formed young, Knäuper is also working on a new study involving children who are between five and seven years old. In this case, Knauper’s goal is to combine food with play so as to condition the children to eat more vegetables.
She and her colleagues have created a very simple video game, where photographs of vegetables sprout arms and legs and become cartoon vegetables when the children click on them. After a week of playing with the game each day, Knäuper presents the children with a platter of vegetables and watches to see whether they eat more vegetables than they had the week before. It’s still too early in the process to see whether the idea works.
Knäuper’s research suggests that, just as habits can be formed, they can also be changed. So, though you may want a double cheese pizza for dinner tonight, if you set out instead to visualize how, when, and where you will buy the ingredients, you might actually manage to substitute a healthy soup and salad instead. It’s worth a try anyway.