Simply imagining eating a certain food may help you eat less of it, new research indicates.
The finding challenges the assumption that thinking about a favorite food makes you crave it more and likely to eat more of it when it’s available.
In a series of experiments involving dozens of volunteers at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers found that people who repeatedly imagined eating a certain food, such as a cube of cheese or an M&M candy, subsequently ate less of it than they otherwise would have.
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“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 Carey Morewedge, PhD, of Carnegie Mellon and author of the study.
“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,” Morewedge says in a news release.
In one of Morewedge’s experiments, a group that imagined putting three quarters into a laundry machine and then imagined eating 30 M&Ms one at a time ate significantly fewer of the candies when given a bowl of M&Ms afterward, compared to a group that imagined putting 33 coins into a laundry machine and a third group that imagined inserting 30 quarters into a laundry machine and then imagined eating three M&Ms.
In other experiments, people were asked to imagine themselves eating cheese or another food, or doing something else completely different, like repeatedly putting coins into a laundry machine.
In each case where the group repetitively imagined eating a food, the researchers detected a gradual reduction in motivation to obtain food and a decrease in its subsequent intake, a process they called habituation. The research points to the conclusion that repetitive mental imagery has a different effect than picturing a single mental image, according to the study.