Most people with eating disorders are extremely dissatisfied with their bodies. It is not uncommon that they even ‘hate’ their own body. They feel fat and ugly, are anxious to gain weight and strive for thinness. Some of them are extremely successful in this endeavour; they lose a lot of weight. Others are less successful and maintain a normal body weight or stay overweight/obese. Successful or not, they all share overvalued ideas with their looks. Their body esteem and the control they have over their bodies fully determine their general self-esteem.
The wish to lose weight fuels abnormal eating behaviours, like starvation, and abnormal compensatory behaviours after perceived overeating, like self-induced vomiting and misuse of laxatives. Many people with eating disorders and obesity do binge eat: during an eating binge they lose control over their eating and they eat a large amount of (usually high-calorie) foods, which are ‘forbidden foods’ in their eyes. The mind of persons with an eating or weight disorder is pre-occupied with calories, ‘to eat or not to eat’ dilemma’s and body weight.
Our studies are all related to the main characteristics of eating disorders and obesity. This doesn’t mean that we only study abnormal behaviour, we study normal eating behaviour as well to learn how and why abnormal and normal eating differ from each other.
The research in our Eat-Lab involves a large number of related projects, linked by the overall aim of elucidating the psychological mechanisms of overeating, food cravings, dieting, weight control, body loathing and so on. For example, we try to find out what makes people extremely dissatisfied about their bodies, how one can become more happy with one’s body, why some people overeat, how overeating can be reduced and controlled, why patients with Anorexia Nervosa are extremely successful in dieting while most obese people are not, and so on.
Our studies are predominantly experimental in nature. We use many innovative methods and instruments, like computerised cognitive tasks, eye tracking systems, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), photoshop, Virtual Reality, psychophysiological assessment of the autonomic nervous system, and so on. Most frequently however, we just use tasty foods, papers and pencils to test straightforward hypotheses in our Eat-Lab.
FROM LAB TO CLINIC – TRANSLATION
Our ultimate aim is to develop better interventions for people with eating disorders and obesity.
Therefore, we usually follow a three-step design in our research. The first step is the study of an alleged basic mechanism in well-controlled laboratory experiments. We test whether we can induce minor symptom-like behaviours, feelings and/or cognitions in healthy participants. If we can, we might have found a mechanism that induces or maintains the disordered eating or body dissatisfaction. We then, step 2, think of an intervention to tackle the mechanism. The effects of this intervention are tested in, again, well-controlled lab experiments. Participants with sub-clinical eating disorders or with some eating disorder symptoms but not a full blown eating disorder might participate in this stage of research. We expect the symptoms (e.g., abnormal eating and/or body dissatisfaction) to reduce because of this intervention. If they indeed do, we translate our experimental intervention to a clinically useful treatment, step 3, and we test the effects of this intervention in clinical participants.