Imaginary Food

Gretchen Becker Health Guide
  • Most of us sometimes have food cravings. Well, OK, like maybe 16 hours a day if we're very strict about our diets (aka "eating plans" or whatever you want to call them).


    How can we best deal with them?


    A study published in the journal Science about a year ago made one suggestion:  Imagine eating the forbidden foods many times and your cravings will lessen.


    Let's say you're on a low-carb diet and you're craving a slice of artisanal bread slathered with butter. If you think of the bread and butter, your mouth will water and you'll want it even more. If you imagine yourself eating one or two slices, you'll want it even more.

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    But if you imagine yourself eating it many, many times, your craving will lessen. The effect is called habituation. If you put on a hat, you'll probably notice that you're wearing a hat for a bit, but after a longer time, you won't notice it's there. If you smell something delicious or something disgusting, if the smell persists, you'll stop noticing it.


    So too, the 10th bite of some food you love is usually not as delicious as the first one. If you've just had a lot of delicious steak and you're offered more, you are apt to decline. But if you're offered dessert, you might say yes, even though you're pretty full from the steak. As one child said when he refused more spinach on the grounds that he was full but then happily ate a piece of cake: "I have a separate stomach for dessert."


    Habituation is the body's way of ensuring that our conscious minds aren't distracted by hundreds of stimuli coming in at once, focusing on those that are new instead.


    In the cited study, the researchers used M&Ms.  The control participants were told to imagine putting 33 quarters into a washing machine. One test group was told to imagine eating 3 M&Ms after inserting 30 quarters into the machine. And another group was told to imagine inserting 3 quarters into a washing machine and then eating 30 M&Ms.


    The researchers then gave the participants a bowl of M&Ms and said they could have as many as they wanted. None were told the purpose of the study. They were told that eating the M&Ms was for a taste test.


    The researchers found that the people who had imagined eating 3 candies ate insignificantly more than those who didn't imagine eating any. But those who imagined eating 30 M&Ms ate fewer real M&Ms when offered. Just imagining eating the candy made it less desirable, and they ate almost half as much. The same occurred when imagining eating cheese and then eating real cheese.


    But another experiment involving imagining putting M&Ms into a bowl but not eating them, didn't curb the appeal of the candies. In fact, it increased their desirability, and the participants ate more than the control group. You apparently have to imagine yourself actually eating the food in question. Just thinking about the food isn't enough.


    But will this imagining trick actually work in the real world? One reporter for the New York Times decided to give it a try and wrote up his results in an amusing piece in that paper. He said he lost 10 pounds. He also said he gave up carbs and then describes eating bananas and drinking fruit juice. I guess to some people, "carbs" means cookies and cake.


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    Nevertheless, it worked for him. Would it work for us? Who knows. We'll never know if we don't try.


    Well, gotta go. I have to imagine eating 30 slices of cheesecake. Burp.


Published On: February 29, 2012