Saturday, December 11, 2010

Food for thought on thoughts for food

Christmas party season is officially upon us. The next few weeks are pretty much going to be a long string of turkeys, stuffing, various things made with cranberries and cutesy Christmas cookies à la Martha Stewart. Faced with this, many of us who are concerned with staying trim and not slipping into food comas on a daily basis may be feeling a little apprehensive. Well, fear not! New research published in the journal Science suggests you can eat less by simply… Thinking more about food!

The study looks at the relationship between the concepts of mental imagery (imagining doing things) and habituation (getting used to things). Through mental imagery, imagining things can affect your body and your emotions just as much as the real thing: just thinking about a spider crawling on your neck can lead to the same feeling of tingling and fear as if it was actually happening. The second concept, habituation, refers to the decrease in your body and your mind’s response to a stimulus. For example, your tenth bite of stuffing is not nearly as satisfying as your first. Given these two principles, the researchers asked if you could habituate to a food just by imagining eating it.

The participants in the study were divided into two groups and each group was asked to imagine doing a task. The first group was asked to picture eating 30 M&M’s, one at a time. The second group was asked to picture putting 30 quarters into a laundry machine, one at a time. After this mental imagery task, the participants were each put in front of a bowl of M&M’s and told to eat as much as they wanted as a preparation for a “taste test” later on (obviously, the taste test is fake, it’s just an excuse to get the participants to eat). The researchers then weighed the leftover M&M’s and measured how much each participant had eaten. They found that those who pictured eating M&M’s ate significantly less candies than those who pictured feeding a laundry machine!

The researchers then compared participants who imagined eating only three M&M’s with participants who imagined eating 30. They found that participants who imagined eating more M&M’s ended up actually eating fewer of the real ones. This means that habituation (doing something repeatedly) is key to observe an effect of mental imagery.

So whether your drug of choice is M&M’s, stuffing or cheese balls, you may be able to minimize the holiday damage by doing a little mental exercise. Now if only I could just picture purchasing and wrapping a bunch of presents…
Reference: Thought for food: imagined consumption reduces actual consumption. (2010) Morewedge CL et al. Science 330:1530-1533.

9 Responses to “Food for thought on thoughts for food”

Fawn said...

Wait, would that then cause you to purchase and wrap fewer presents? Someone in your life might have an objection to that. ;)

I was thinking about food tonight. But what I was thinking was that I've put on a little weight since the weather turned colder, and I want to eat all the time. Doesn't it seem scientifically logical that my body wants a little extra fat when it's cold out? That must be what Christmas is really about.

I wonder if thinking about sex means that you'll have less of it...

@ Fawn: There's quite possibly an evolutionary perspective to putting weight on in the winter. Would anyone care to confirm this?

@ Michael: Good question...

Rhythmic said...

Interesting ...

That's quite the opposite of my experiences so far.

If I think about food, I very soon end up eating.

If I think about sex ...

Thanks for the comment, Rhythmic!
The researchers actually address your point. When you think of a big juicy steak, you typically want to eat one, and your mouth can even start to water in anticipation (provided you're not vegetarian and steak is your thing). So in this way, thinking about food makes you want food. But what the paper says is if you go beyond the initial mouth-watering thoughts and spend some time imagining the motions of eating the steak (30 bites of it, for example), then your brain habituates. I guess the process just takes some time.

As for sex... Well we'll just have to wait for more studies. :)

Anonymous said...

Enjoyable and thought-provoking. I wonder if thinking about this post means I will read less research-based blogs....;)

Seems I've heard that premise of gaining weight in the winter somewhere....but then Fawn's ancestors might have something to do with her seasonal weight gain, too, eh? (Knowing you have a very diverse ancestry, Fawn, I feel safe throwing that into the mix of temperature as a reason.)

I am not feeling safe to comment on what Christmas is really about on someone else's blog, or to comment on MM's question.

Celebrating nonetheless!

Barbara, I sure hope you will read *more* research-based blogs! :)

Hope you're having a wonderful Christmas time.

Anonymous said...

Just found this blog!

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