Mind Over Appetite

By Martin Brown

Can we imagine eating something we crave and actually eat less? The answer, surprisingly, might be a resounding  “Yes!”

Here’s why:

Pie is not a dirty word.
Suppose you’re craving a piece of apple pie that’s been sitting in the fridge since last night’s holiday party. You feigned no interest in taking home that yummy leftover when offered by the event’s host, but now that you’re alone in the house with that tempting treat, you’ve been thinking about making a nice cup of tea and sitting down to enjoy it.

In an experiment reported in the prestigious journal, Science, researchers asked volunteers to devote about a minute and a half to “methodically imagining chewing and swallowing 30 M&Ms, one after another.” Later when those volunteers were presented with an actual bowl of M&Ms, the study found that they ate about half as many candies as volunteers who imagined eating only three M&Ms, or imagined eating none at all.

Give in. Go on, just do it.
This finding runs counter to the conventional wisdom that thinking about food makes you eat more. Carey Morewedge, a professor of social and decision sciences at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University says, “Thought suppression tends to sensitize people to craving. A better way to deal with cravings might be to imagine indulging them.”

A Girl’s gotta have it…
Going back to that piece of apple pie, imaging seeing, touching, smelling or tasting it — can help sate hunger through a process called habituation.

“Imaginary eating,” Professor Morewedge explains, “works to suppress our appetites because it triggers habituation, the psychological phenomenon that explains why we are able to get used to things that initially seem annoying — the roar of an airplane engine, for instance, or dim lighting in a restaurant. It occurs when extended exposure to a stimulus decreases an organism’s response to it.

Now a growing number of experts believe that this can help regulate eating as well. Previously it was thought that actual sensory input was necessary for habituation to occur. But apparently it can be triggered through thought alone. If that is indeed true, it could have significant consequences for dieters.

More choice, the merrier? Um…NO.
Be aware, however, that buffets defeat this form of habituation. As Frances McSweeney, a professor at Washington State University, who studies habituation, explains it: “If you want to eat less, don’t have a variety of foods available because that makes it harder to habituate to any one of them.”

These findings confirm a long held belief that people concerned with caloric intake should eat in a quiet place — not in front of a TV or in a busy eatery — because that very stimuli can disrupt habituation.

Focus….focus….
In all his experimentation, Professor Morewedge directed test subjects to keep their minds focused on the repetitive aspects of eating a particular food. Without that focus, he explained, habituation would be unlikely.

This mental conditioning better prepares us to avoid overeating as it pertains to specific meals, particularly snacking and dessert. It’s likely ineffective against a variety of dishes served all at one time. If for example, however, you always eat too much of your mom’s meatloaf, you can imagine in detail eating that specific meatloaf before you sit down to it and you will probably eat less.

Bottom line: calories in, calories on.
Remember that, in all aspects of weight gain, the real battle is not what you eat, but how much you eat. Mentally envisioning a particular food we’re about to eat could be a valuable tool in preparing us to eat less thereby losing weight with little effort.