Date Approved

7-31-2008

Date Posted

12-15-2009

Degree Type

Open Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Psychology

Committee Member

Karen Saules, Ph.D., Chair

Committee Member

Flora Hoodin, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Kenneth Rusiniak, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Denise Tanguay, Ph.D.

Abstract

Obesity is considered a national epidemic and is associated with increased eating behavior and decreased physical activity. Research has demonstrated biological underpinnings, but the dramatic increase in prevalence rates in recent decades (Flegal et al., 2002) suggests that environmental influences also contribute (Hill et al., 2008). This led researchers to speculate about the impact of our purported “Toxic Environment,” in which high-calorie, energy-dense foods are readily available for consumption and technological advances have decreased physical activity (Wadden et al., 2002). Most of the literature examining the theory of the Toxic Environment is correlational in nature, limiting causal inference. A pilot study of five participants demonstrated that exposure to purported Toxic Environment cues elicited increased food consumption compared to exposure to Thin-Ideal or Neutral cues. Therefore, the present study aimed to explore the influence of two elements of the purported Toxic Environment on women’s eating behavior – advertising and food packaging size. Eighty-two participants were randomly assigned to a 2 (toxic vs. healthy food ad) x 2 (large vs. small package-size) design. Participants, deceived about the true aims of the study, were asked to find dots in the ad stimuli and were given food according to package-size condition to consume ad lib during the session. The next day participants were contacted to provide a 24- hour dietary recall. Results demonstrated that participants exposed to healthy ads and large package size consumed more calories in session than those in other conditions. There were no differences among conditions on caloric intake in the following 24 hours. When examining the pattern of consumption, it appears that participants may have regulated their food intake during the study. Results also suggest that overweight women may be more sensitive to Toxic Environment cues, whereas restrained eaters may be more sensitive to packaging size as opposed to advertising. Binge-eaters appear to be sensitive to food cues in general, regardless of condition, compared to non-binge eaters. Results may have treatment implications for various weight-related populations. If further research supports the impact of our potentially Toxic Environment on eating behavior, implications for developing public health policies addressing the obesity epidemic may be warranted.

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