The holiday season is coming and with it all the guilty delights of a traditional festive diet. But if you want to fend off the flab, pushing thoughts of mince pies out of your mind might be counterproductive: indulging thoughts of eating a particular food may help us to eat less of the real thing.
The finding could mean a rethink of weight management and drug treatment programmes, because these usually emphasise avoidance of thoughts of the desired item, rather than encouragement of them. “We believe this is the first research to show the imagination can decrease the attraction of any initially attractive stimulus,” says Joachim Vosgerau at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, part of the team that conducted the research.
“When you quit smoking you constantly get those urges, you’re trying to suppress the thoughts,” says Vosgerau. “According to our theory you should do the opposite and imagine doing it, drag by drag.”
Vosgerau and colleagues studied the effect of mental processes on habituation – the lessening of our response to a stimulus when it is repeated. The prospect of a 10th bite of chocolate, for example, arouses less desire than the first chunk did. Feedback from digestion is too slow to cause such rapid habituation, so it is thought that mental processing controls it, at least in part.
Given the overlap in our responses to sensory perception and mental representation – for example, the thought of a spider crawling up your leg can induce the same sweat response as the real thing – Vosgerau’s team reasoned that thinking about the consumption of a food could lead people to habituate to it.
Cash and chocolate
In the first experiment volunteers were asked to imagine inserting 33 coins into a laundry machine – an action that the researchers thought was similar to eating M&M’s. A second group imagined inserting 30 coins and eating three M&M’s; a third imagined inserting three coins and eating 30 M&M’s.
After their imaginative efforts, all the participants were allowed to eat freely from a bowl of real M&M’s. Those who imagined eating 30 M&M’s consumed significantly fewer of the real thing than people in the other two groups, suggesting that mentally experiencing the action of eating can cause habituation to the real food.
Further experiments showed that the effect only appeared when participants thought about eating the food; repeatedly imagining the food alone did not reduce consumption.
“This research may be a back-up to what we always try and get across, and that is to really focus on your food, giving it all your attention,” says UK-based dietician Gaynor Bussell. “By focusing on every mouthful you eat, we know people eat less.”
It seems that even without those sensory experiences, our imaginations can act as a pretty good substitute for the real thing. So go ahead and embrace thoughts of those holiday treats – guilt-free.
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