Researchers have found that imagining eating a particular food resulted in people eating less of that food later. It might sounds counter-intuitive – if I describe a chocolate ice cream cone: rich, dark brown creaminess with lumps of fudgy brownie sprinkled throughout….kind of makes you want one more, doesn’t it?
But what these researchers at Carnegie Mellon did was to compare people who imagined eating 3 M&Ms with people who imagined eating 30 M&Ms. Then they gave them a bowl of M&Ms and asked them to try a few for a taste test. They didn’t tell the subjects that they were measuring how much they ate, but of course they were. People who’d imagined eating 3 M&Ms ate quite a bit more than those who imagined eating 30.
The subjects also did real visualization instead of just thinking about M&Ms – they imagined picking up the M&M, putting it in their mouth, imagined what it felt like, what their tongue would do with it, imagined it melting and finally swallowing.
The researchers are suggesting that our usual way to deal with cravings, that is, to distract ourselves, not think about that particular food, substitute something less caloric, might all be working against us.
They believe that there are signals in our brains that tell us when to stop eating, and that these signals are not necessarily related to reduction of hunger or satiety signals from the stomach, and that the visualization of eating can trigger these signals even if the stomach hasn’t received any food. We already know that imagining scary scenarios can lead to increased heart rate, in other words, the brain sends signals to your body as if what you’re imagining is actually happening. So instead of whetting our appetite, visualization of a large amount of food leads the brain to believe we’ve eaten it and had enough.
It also only works for specific foods – i.e. the researchers found a reduction of cheese intake only if the subjects imagined eating cheese, not M&Ms. So it might work for specific cravings. If we’re paying attention, we’re aware that the first bite of something delicious is usually more satisfying than the last. So this is a way to trick your brain into thinking you’ve already had enough and the food isn’t as satisfying anymore.
What remains to be seen is if this habituation response works the same in addicted brains. They’re not sure if it would work with alcohol or tobacco in the same way. As we talked about a few weeks ago, food may be addictive in the same way as drugs, so if that’s the case, habituation might lead to increased consumption instead of decreased consumption.
It’s worth a try – next time you have a specific craving, try taking a few minutes, sit down, close your eyes, and imagine eating that food. You have to be aware of everything about it – how it looks, how it smells, how it feels in your mouth. And you have to imagine eating more than a few bites – imagine eating more than you usually do, from the first bite to the last. You might actually find that after imagining eating an entire carton of ice cream, that salad looks pretty good.