Study: To Lose Weight, Think About Food

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NEW YORK (MainStreet) – Here’s a diet trick you can try come January: Imagine the food you desire in great detail and you will actually consume less of it. That’s what researchers at Carnegie Mellon University discovered when they tested the theory out for a new study published in Science magazine.

"Our studies found that 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,” Carey Morewedge, assistant professor of social and decision sciences and lead author of the study, explained in a press release.

In other words, imagining yourself eating a specific food decreases your appetite for it.

To prove the hypothesis, researchers ran a series of tests that revolved around participants performing variations of 33 repetitive actions, one at a time. A control group imagined inserting 33 quarters into a laundry machine, an action similar to eating M&Ms. A second group imagined inserting 30 quarters into a laundry machine and then imagined eating three M&Ms. A third group imagined inserting three quarters into a laundry machine and then imagined eating 30 M&Ms.

Once the tasks were complete, each group was given a bowl of actual M&Ms and was invited to eat freely. Researchers discovered that the participants who imagined eating 30 M&Ms actually ate significantly fewer than those in the other two groups.

To confirm these results, the test was repeated after reshuffling the participants assigned to each group. The findings remained the same. Whoever imagined eating more M&Ms invariably ate fewer actual ones when given the chance.

While admittedly this conclusion may seem, well, hard to imagine, it’s not exactly a theory we’ve never heard before. The research essentially builds off the idea that visualization and mental imagery can affect emotions, response tendencies, skilled motor behavior and, consequently, the overall outcome in a series of related events.

“To some extent, merely imagining an experience is a substitute for actual experience,” Morewedge said. “The difference between imagining and experiencing may be smaller than previously assumed.”

Of course, the study is not without its caveats. Most notably, researchers discovered that if it is to be effective, the food fantasy also needs to be very specific.

According to researchers, follow-up experiments illustrated that only imagining the actual consumption of the food in question reduced its consumption. Merely thinking about the food repeatedly or imagining the consumption of a different food didn’t influence the actual consumption of the food participants were given. (So, for example, if you imagined yourself eating M&Ms, but then went to Taco Bell, you would theoretically not be dissuaded from eating the 30 bean burritos you usually eat.)

Ultimately, the study supports the notion that effective diets aren’t based on negative reinforcement or deprivation.  

"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," Morewedge said, explaining that researchers hope the findings will help develop future interventions to reduce cravings of unhealthy food, drugs and cigarettes.

At the very least, it gives us all something delicious to think about.

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