OBJECTIVE: Aversive emotions toward food and the consequences of eating are at the core of anorexia nervosa. Exposure therapy is effective to reduce anxiety and avoidance toward feared stimuli. Based on the inhibitory learning framework, this study examined the feasibility to induce social support or positive mood to enhance the impact of a single session virtual food exposure on food-related anxiety in anorexia nervosa.

METHOD: One hundred and forty-five patients were randomized to: (1) virtual food exposure (i.e., baseline condition), (2) virtual food exposure plus positive mood induction (i.e., positive mood condition), or (3) virtual food exposure plus social support (i.e., social support condition). They completed self-report assessments of anxiety toward virtual foods, general anxiety, positive mood, social support, and hunger, before and after virtual food exposure. Number of eye gazes and touches toward foods were recorded during the virtual reality exposure.

RESULTS: Patients had lower levels of anxiety toward virtual foods in the positive mood condition, compared to the baseline condition [F (2,141)  = 4.36, p = .015; medium effect size]. They also touched food items more often in the baseline condition. No other significant changes were found.

DISCUSSION: Virtual food exposure enhanced by positive mood induction seems a feasible approach to strengthen the impact of food exposure in anorexia nervosa.

PUBLIC SIGNIFICANCE: This research contributes to the understanding of how patients with anorexia nervosa can be supported to overcome fear and anxiety around food. Virtual reality enables patients to expose themselves to difficult situations (e.g., kitchen with foods of various calorie contents) while experiencing positive stimuli, such as a loving and kind pet or a supportive avatar.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)703-715
Number of pages13
JournalThe International journal of eating disorders
Issue number3
Early online date17 Feb 2024
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2024


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