Do you have problems sticking to your diet Your memory might be to blame
Researchers studied executive function, which covers the ability to weigh up options, prioritise, multi-task and plan aheadThose with poor executive function were more likely to give in to temptation
14:54 GMT, 7 September 2012
If you can’t stick to a diet, no matter how much you want to, your memory may be to blame.
Researchers have linked a set of traits, including a form of memory, to how well slimmers stick to their intentions.
Those who fall down on the traits, known collectively as executive function, are more likely to give into temptation.
When dieters were given the option to tuck into chocolate, those with poor executive function were more likely to give into temptation
Executive function covers the ability to weigh up options, prioritise, multi-task and plan ahead. It also includes prospective memory – the form of recall that we need to carry out plans.
People with poor prospective memory forget to do things planned for the near future, such as locking the door, meeting a friend or posting a letter.
In the case of dieters, it could simply lead to them forgetting they are on a diet.
Researcher Julia Allan, a health psychologist, said: ‘Prospective memory keeps you on track. Every time you are offered something to eat, you have to bring to mind that you are on a diet.’
A series of studies carried out at Aberdeen University showed the importance of executive function to adhering to healthy eating resolutions.
For instance, when volunteers regularly wrote down what they ate over a three day period, those shown in tests to have poor executive function ate less fruit and vegetables and more sugary snacks than they’d intended.
And when dieters were given the option to tuck into chocolate, those with poor executive function were more likely to give into temptation.
Dr Allan, who describes herself as having poor executive function, said: ‘A person with less efficient executive function is less likely to resist temptation and stick with what they had planned on any given day, than someone with excellent executive function.’
Speaking at the British Science Festival, in Aberdeen, she said that the findings help explain why some people find it easier than others to stick to resolutions to lose weight or stop smoking.
‘We know that there has been a lot of time, effort and money directed at health information campaigns telling people what they should be eating, why they should be eating more fruit and vegetables, why they should be eating less fat.
‘But when you look at the Scottish population, the vast majority know what they should and shouldn’t be doing and the problem is more that people don’t act on these intentions.’
She is now looking at ways to make it easier those with poor executive function to eat healthily and has already had success with something as simple as a sign that sits on coffee shop counters.
It contains pictures of all the snacks on sale, together with their calorie count. Those with the fewest calories are shown on the left, to tap into our inbuilt bias to look in that direction.
Dr Julia Allan is now looking at ways to make it easier for those with poor memory to eat healthily
When the signs were displayed in two coffee shops for three months, sales of low calorie foods went up and those of fattening foods fell.
Dr Allan said that laying out all the options in front of people seems to be more effective than simply steering them towards fruit.
‘You might walk into a coffee shop feeling tired and wanting caffeine and sugar, absolutely fruit is not an option.
‘This does let you find the chocolate that is going to do the least damage to your diet, which I think is one of the strengths of it.’
Displaying the information on the counter also acts as a memory aid to those with poor prospective memory.
Dr Allan said: ‘From our research, it is clear that sticking to a diet is not simply a case of making a decision to eat more healthily.
‘Dietary control involves lots of different psychological skills and resources and so will be much easier for some people than others.’
Junk food may damage the part of the brain that controls the amount of we eat and how much energy we burn off.
When mice were fed extremely fatty food it took just three days for changes to appear in their brains.
Further research is needed to find out if any damage is permanent, the Aberdeen University researchers said.