Rethinking Healthcare

Melt away the pounds with the new Carnegie Mellon imaginary diet

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You want it? Don't stop thinking about it, rather, imagine yourself indulging in it. Then you'll want it less.

Imagine a big fudge brownie. Still warm on a plate, maybe with a few scoops of vanilla ice cream on top… Now imagine eating it. Bite, chew, swallow, repeat. Then repeat again. Again.

Having done that, you’re less likely to devour it for real when you actually get the chance, according to a new study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers.

The first bite is often the best, and each bite after that is less exiting. This is called “habituation” – when extended exposure to something decreases your responsiveness to it and motivation to obtain it. As a result, you’ll desire the brownie less.

“These findings suggest that trying to suppress one's thoughts of desired foods in order to curb cravings for those foods is a fundamentally flawed strategy,” says lead author Carey Morewedge, a professor of social and decision sciences. “A better way to deal with cravings might be to imagine indulging them,” he adds.

He and his colleagues used M&M’s and cheese cubes to show that imagination is enough to habituate a person to those imagined foods.

They asked some people to imagine themselves eating a food item repeatedly, like 30 M&M’s one at a time. They asked other participants to imagine themselves eating less of the food (3 M&M’s), more of a different food (like cheese), or to imagine themselves doing something different altogether (like putting quarters into the laundry machine).

Afterwards, the researchers gave them all bowls filled with M&M’s. But the people who had repeatedly imagined eating the candy actually consumed less of the treat than those who hadn’t maxed out on them.

Apparently, repetitive mental imagery has very different effects than picturing a single mental image, which would just whet your appetite, making your mouth water and your stomach growl.

“If you just think about the food itself – how it tastes, smells, and looks – [that will] increase your appetite,” Morewedge says. “This research suggests that it might be better, actually, to force yourself to repeatedly think about tasting, swallowing, and chewing the food you crave to reduce your cravings.”

Habituation is a fundamental process that determines how much we consume, when to stop consuming it, and when to switch to consuming another food or product, says co-author Joachim Vosgerau. “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.”

Morewedge adds, “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."

Obesity rates in the US have been climbing. In 2009, nearly 30% of adults were obese, which increases chances of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.

The researchers are launching new studies to understand how this form of mental imagery might be used to regulate behaviors such as diet, smoking, and exercise routines, but for now, Morewedge says he's not planning to experiment on himself over the holidays: “I really enjoy my mother's cooking."

This study was published in Science yesterday.

Image by hollymelissa via Flickr

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure