Is Imagination a Remedy for Eating too Much?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
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Researchers say it's possible to avoid eating too much if you just imagine devouring your favorite food. Contrary to the assumption that thinking about food is counterproductive, findings from Carnegie Mellon University researchers suggest thinking about eating can reduce the consumption of unhealthy foods.

How Thinking about Eating Food Leads to Eating Less

According to the study authors, "To some extent, merely imagining an experience is a substitute for actual experience. The difference between imagining and experiencing may be smaller than previously assumed." The scientists based the study on research showing that perception and imagery have the same effect on the brain and behavior.

To test their theory, the researchers performed a series of experiments to see if imagining eating food would lead to less consumption. In the first, study participants thought about inserting 33 quarters into a laundry machine (much like eating M&M’s), the next group visualized inserting 30 quarters and eating 3 M&M’s, and the last group imagined eating 30 M&M’s and slipping just 3 quarters into a washing machine.

They were then given a bowl of M&M’s on the pretext of conducting a taste test. The group who imagined eating 30 M&M’s ate substantially less than those who thought about eating just 3 pieces.

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To ensure it was imagery of food consumption responsible for curbing appetite, the participants were asked to imagine either eating or inserting coins. They again found the M&M group ate less.

Carey Morewedge, an assistant professor of social and decision sciences and lead author of this study. "Our studies found that instead, people who repeatedly imagined the consumption of a morsel of food — such as an M&M or cube of cheese — subsequently consumed less of that food than did people who imagined consuming the food a few times or performed a different but similarly engaging task. We think these findings will help develop future interventions to reduce cravings for things such as unhealthy food, drugs and cigarettes, and hope they will help us learn how to help people make healthier food choices."

Joachim Vosgerau, assistant professor of marketing who participated in the research explains the effect of imagining eating that leads to eating less is the result of habituation. Just thinking about the food or imagining eating a different food failed to reduce the amount of food the participants were given – only thinking about the actual food resulted in eating less.

"Habituation is one of the fundamental processes that determine how much we consume of a food or a product, when to stop consuming it, and when to switch to consuming another food or product," Vosgerau said. The findings show imagery can lead to behavioral changes that the authors say can be applied to other areas. In this instance, it appears imagining eating a favorite food can reduce food consumption.

Science 2010; DOI: 10.1126/science.1195701.

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