It's that time of year again. Holiday parties. Office luncheons. Friends and family bearing gifts of chocolate, sweets, you name it. Every food that we spend the better part of the year avoiding seems to miraculously appear over the holidays and tempt us to no end. The average weight gain over the winter holidays is a couple of pounds and studies show that these pounds are not likely to come off - ever. So, what steps should you take to not overdo it?
A paper published a few weeks ago in the journal Science reveals a new way to curtail your holiday eating. It's not only fairly effortless, but surprising in its success. Simply put, repeatedly imagining eating something many times - whether it's cheese or chocolate - causes you to consume less of this food than if you had not practiced eating in your mind's eye.
It's true that thinking about a desirable food can lead to an increase in your craving for it. When people picture themselves eating a juicy steak, for example, they salivate at the thought of it and experience an increased desire to eat it. But, it's also the case that eating a lot of one specific food typically leads to a decrease in how much you subsequently want it. You desire that 10th bite of steak a lot less than you desired those first few bites. This habituation occurs too quickly to result from digestive feedback, so scientists believe that our desires or motivations play a large role in impacting our decreased wanting of a food as we eat it.
Following this logic of habituation, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University hypothesized that if they could get people to imagine repeatedly eating the same food over and over again (rather than actually eating it), this imagined eating might actually affect how much people wanted the food and how much they subsequently ate of it.
The scientists had volunteers participate in an experiment where they imagined performing repetitive actions. Some people imagined eating 30 M&Ms and putting 3 quarters into a laundry machine. Others imagined inserting 30 quarters into a laundry machine and eating only 3 M&Ms (note that everyone imagined 33 actions in total, what differed was what exactly people imagined doing). After the imagination task, a bowl of M&Ms was placed in front of each participant, ostensibly because they were taking part in a "taste test" and everyone was told they could eat as many M&Ms as they wanted. When people indicated they were finished, the bowl of M&Ms was removed and the researchers surreptitiously measured the amount of food that each participant ate on a digital scale.
What the scientists found was that people who imagined eating 30 M&Ms ate significantly less M&Ms than people who imagined eating only 3 M&Ms. Imagining eating the M&Ms seemed to have habituated people to them so they ate less when they were available.
Importantly, subsequent experiments showed that it was not just imagining M&Ms that did the trick. Simply imagining putting 30 M&Ms into a bowl (rather than imagining actually eating them) did not reduce the amount of chocolate people subsequently ate. Neither did imagining eating another food such as cheese cubes. People who imagined eating 30 cheese cubes ate just as many M&Ms as people who imagined putting 30 coins in a laundry machine. It was only people who repeatedly imagined eating M&Ms that got the benefit. Of course, people who imagined eating the cheese cubes did later consume less cheese.
Imagined consumption of a specific food decreases your subsequent intake of that food because it changes how much you want it. Just as the 10th bite of chocolate is less desirable than the first, after imagining eating a food over and over you want it less and thus eat less of it. It's not that you don't like the food anymore, but rather that your immediate desire for it goes away. So, next time you find yourself confronted with the holiday food table, stop for a few moments, close your eyes, and imagine yourself repeatedly eating the food you want the most. You might just find that, in the end, you eat less of it.
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Morewedge et al. (2010). Thought for food. Imagined consumption reduces actual consumption. Science, 330, 1530.