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Be careful: you are now approaching a McDonald’s!

Be careful: you are now approaching a McDonald’s!

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts

Wishful thinking

Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Psychologist and neuroscientist Anne Roefs would like to put people with obesity in a scanner to find out how eating is represented in their brain before, during and after going on a diet.

Look, Roefs says, while she thumbs through a square booklet with ‘Wild ideas’ on the cover. Inside she writes down brain waves and inspirations. Usually concerning research, but not always. On the first page it says: create a cookery book for a life-long healthy lifestyle. Yes, she loves to cook; after het PhD, she was even both a postgraduate and a cook for a while. The latter in the Salonard restaurant. Which now no longer exists, only the bakery of the same name is still operating.

Roefs is now a full-time professor of Psychology and Neurosciences of Abnormal Eating and is heading a Vidi-funded research project into how food is represented in the brain. “On the basis of brain activity, you can see whether people feel it is important that food is tasty or healthy. One of the things we wonder: is this representation of taste stronger in people with a high BMI?”

For her dream study, Roefs is looking for a few hundred test subjects with obesity, who have a BMI between 30 and 40. “That is partly a practical choice, because people with a BMI over 40 won't fit in our scanner. In de US, where obesity is a much greater problem, they may have machines with larger tunnels, but not here.”

These test subjects, who weigh between 100 and 130 kilo, will then go on a diet. “On a strict diet, because they have got to lose weight, approximately 25 kilo. So, I would have food packages sent to them three times a day; they would have to make do with that. One may expect that in the process of losing weight taste becomes less important and the healthy aspects become more prominent. But is that also apparent in brain activity?”

And suppose researchers could predict, on the basis of that information, how long people will stick to a diet. “Then you would be able to support them during the difficult phases and continue to emphasise the importance of healthy food. This could be done using apps, at mealtimes.”

In the Think Slim project, which has been completed, Roefs collected data on test subjects using smartphones: about their emotions, appetite, daily activities and eating behaviour. “On the basis of a network analysis, we tried to predict under which conditions people would succumb and opt for an unhealthy bite. If someone comes home from work, tired and dejected, you could send a warning. Or suggest a distraction: take a walk in the woods or call a friend. The timing and content of these warnings could be based on each individual's details.”

Collecting personal data has no bounds these days. “Have you ever heard of digital phenotyping? This is when researchers are given access to the digital behaviour of test subjects. They see text messages, listen to telephone conversations, and see what people google, but also where they are located. It is a tremendous breach of privacy but people do of course give their permission.”

Digital phenotyping would also be interesting for Roefs' research. “As soon as someone approaches a McDonald’s, you send a text: be careful, you are tired and you are approaching a fast-food restaurant.”

Try to turn around.

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