Imagine this: No counting calories, measuring out portions or banning sweets…and yet you naturally end up eating less of your favorite treats. Sound like a joke? Well, new research from Carnegie Mellon University shows a way that this might actually work. It’s the diet that’s all in your head.
First, researchers had the study participants imagine themselves eating 30 M&M candies or 30 pieces of cheddar cheese. Next, they had the participants sit in a room where they were given either M&Ms or cheddar cheese as a snack. What the researchers discovered was that the participants ate less of the snack they imagined eating than those who imagined something else (such as putting quarters into a laundry machine). And it didn’t have to do with how much they liked the particular snack. A questionnaire revealed that the participants still liked the snack as much as they did before imagining eating it, they just didn’t feel like eating it as much.
Many of us might think the opposite to be true. The more I think about chocolate cake, the more likely I am to go out and get a piece. But, what the researchers were studying in this case was much more specific: habituation. If we experience any sensation regularly, we can become slightly desensitized to it. The fiftieth time we experience something is less intense than the first time. This study shows that we might not even need to physically experience it, but to just imagine experiencing it.
The method to achieve habituation in this study was precise, the participates had to imagine pigging out. The participants had to imagine eating the candy or cheese piece by piece, and they had to imagine eating a substantial number of pieces. The habituation only worked when the participants imagined eating 30 pieces of candy or cheese, but not three pieces.
This new research gives dieters something to hope for: an easy, inexpensive way to eat less of the unhealthy foods that contribute to extra pounds. But it also leaves many questions to be answered. If this imagination technique works for dieters, how long will it work for, and with how many types of food? Does it work for everyone?
Until those questions are answered, perhaps experiment a little on your own. Just sit back, close your eyes and start eating some ice cream.