Researchers Use Virtual Reality to Investigate, Assess Food AddictionsInnovative Study Outlines Strategies to Combat Obesity
The cravings can be overwhelming. The health effects can be deadly. It’s not a drug; it’s food. The University of Houston’s Tracey Ledoux, assistant professor of health and human performance, is using an innovative approach to studying food addictions in hopes of finding strategies to assess and treat them.
“There is a growing body of research that shows that consumption of palatable food stimulates the same reward and motivation centers of the brain that recognized addictive drugs do,” Ledoux said. “These cravings are related to overeating, unsuccessful weight loss and obesity.”
Ledoux and Professor Patrick Bordnick, director of the UH Graduate College of Social Work’s Virtual Reality Lab, will use virtual environments to try to induce food cravings. Bordnick’s body of research has focused on addictive behaviors and phobias and has used virtual reality as a tool to assess and treat them.
In this new investigation, participants will wear a virtual reality helmet to enter a “real -world” restaurant, complete with all the sights, sounds and smells. A joystick will allow them to walk to a buffet, encounter waitstaff and other patrons.
“Virtual reality will allow us to identify food and food-related stimuli of the built, home, school and social environment that cue food cravings, which has public policy, public health and clinical treatment implications,” Ledoux said. “Our study is innovative because it provides a very effective, cost-efficient tool that can be used to increase our understanding of food cravings.”
Ledoux is recruiting normal-weight women who do not have dietary restrictions or are trying to lose weight. Participants will be invited to two appointments, which may last between 30 minutes and an hour, and will receive a small compensation plus a chance to win a Kindle e-reader. For more information contact Tracey Ledoux at 713-743-1870 or TALedoux@uh.edu.
"Obesity is a pervasive and intractable problem with significant public health and economic costs in our society,” she said. “Finding the elements that promote overeating is critical for reversing the dangerous obesity trend.”