For many of us, the month of December is filled with temptations leading us away from our health goals and into over-indulgence. Along with cherished celebrations with loved ones come platters heaping with frosted treats, bottomless glasses of bubbly, and an array of distractions far more tempting than the treadmill.
Does psychological research suggest any tricks for savoring small indulgences and truly enjoying oneself without stumbling into the new year groggy and in need of elastic waistbands?
We’re in luck! A study published just this month in Science ("Thought for Food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption") suggests that imagining the act of eating a particular food may naturally reduce the amount you eat of that food.
What They Found
These researchers asked participants to imagine eating either 3 or 30 M&Ms, one at a time. When actually presented with M&Ms, the group imagining eating 30 M&Ms actually ate nearly half as much as the group imagining eating 3. The authors repeated this experiment several times with little twists to test out different possibilities, and each seemed to confirm this finding: that imagining over-indulging in the desired food led to less actual consumption when given the opportunity. However, the authors found that the effects were food specific; in other words, imagining eating 30 M&Ms had no effect on how many cheese cubes they ate.
Why Might This Be?
The authors speculate that the effect is due to what's called habituation, by which we become accustomed to something and derive less pleasure from it after a while (and why the first bite of chocolate cake is always better than the last). What’s new about these research results is the suggestion that you can habituate to pleasurable foods by eating them in your imagination.
John Tierney writes about the study on nytimes.com:
"Indeed, there’s a well-established phenomenon called sensitization, or sometimes the whetting effect: if you picture yourself eating chocolate, your desire for it increases, and such thoughts can cause you to literally salivate.
Similarly, imagining the sight or the smell of a cigarette will increase a smoker’s craving to light up. And when you actually smell or get a taste of something, that initial sensation can also increase your desire for it.
But eventually that effect is counterbalanced by another well-established phenomenon called habituation. Just as you adjust to bright lights and stop being bothered by bad smells, you get habituated to a food as you eat it..." (read more from the article)
On your way to your family’s Christmas Eve and worried about over-consuming your brother’s magically creamy peanut butter fudge? Before you go, plop yourself down in your arm chair and picture yourself slowly eating 30 pieces of it. Perhaps when the tray of treats is offered to you, you’ll find that you’ll be satisfied with a small piece.
Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too?
Sarah Rose Cavanagh, Ph.D., is professor of psychology in affective science at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts. To learn more about her research, please visit http://bit.ly/sarahrose.