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People with Eating Disorders Distressed by Virtual Food


In this high-tech day and age, just about everything you can imagine can be found in virtual form, including food. Interestingly, a recent study conducted by a group of scientists from all over the world observed that patients with eating disorders were emotionally impacted when viewing food shown to them in a virtual reality setting.

The research team compared the responses of 30 female participants – 10 with no eating disorder, 10 with bulimia, and 10 with anorexia – as they were shown computer-generated food, real food, and pictures of food. Initially, the participants were exposed to six real foods – all high in calories – placed in front of them. Then they were shown the same six foods via a slideshow. Finally, they went into a “virtual diner” in which the same 6 foods were given to them. Their emotional reactions measured, and were the same for the virtual food as those elicited by the real food.

Even though it is a preliminary study, it suggests that real stimuli and virtual stimuli are equally effective, and more effective than photographs in terms of the emotional distress they elicit in patients with eating disorders.

These findings are important because they open the door to the possibility of using virtual food to screen, diagnose and treat people with eating disorders as well as other psychiatric conditions.

The article can be found in a recent publication of the Annals of General Psychiatry.

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