Introducing the Imagination Diet

For many, with the New Year comes a new diet.  Motives may vary, but let’s face it: you’d prefer to look like the slim “1” in 2011 that replaced that big fat “0” in 2010.

Yet, why you want to eat healthier is not the real issue.  How is the big question.  While dozens of different diets exist suggesting what foods you should and should not eat, maybe it is not what you eat but what you imagine yourself eating.  What is your favorite food?  Probably the one most diets would tell you to stay away from.  For our purposes: let’s say Reese’s Pieces.  (For those with peanut allergies, I apologize.)

Now, take a moment and imagine eating that bag of Reese’s Pieces.  Eat them one at a time, savoring every morsel.  Finish the whole bag, and not those kid-sized ones.  Now reach for the real bag of Reese’s Pieces.  After this little imagination exercise, you will become habituated to that particular food and consume less of it.  This theory follows those same ideas introduced in any intro economics class: marginal utility to consume.  The first Reese’s Pieces is always better than the tenth.  Of course, even the best imagination cannot confuse thinking of consumption with consumption itself.  Nonetheless, mentally simulating consumption can bring about habituation to that particular food.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University tested this theory, publishing their results in the December issue of Science.  Using M&M’s (sorry Reese’s Pieces fans), they performed five simple and simply fascinating experiments to show that this exercise reduces food consumption.

Dubious of these findings?  When I first think of eating M&M’s, my mouth waters and I’m hungrier for more.  This process is known as sensitization to the stimulus.  However, as the researchers pointed out, after becoming sensitized to the food, if the imagination exercise is repeated enough times (in the experiment, 30), the real consumption of the now habituated M&M’s will decrease.

Perhaps ideas regarding sensitization and habituation are believable.  Yet, when you cook dinner, you do not become habituated to what you’re cooking.  The study also concluded that even imagining repeated exposure to a stimulus, called priming, only sensitizes you to that food and increases your consumption.  When subjects imagined placing 30 M&M’s into a bowl, they ate significantly more M&M’s than those who repeated this exercise only 3 times.  Yet, those that imagined eating 30 M&M’s consumed significantly less.

A potential confound to this experiment: imaginary consumption induces a feeling of “fullness,” not habituation to that particular food.  The researchers addressed this issue, too.  If a participant imagined eating 30 M&M’s, they would eat more cheese cubes than one that imagined eating 30 cheese cubes.  Therefore, habituation occurs in a stimulus-specific manner.

The bottom line: before surrendering to temptation and grabbing that bag of Reese’s Pieces on January 2, you’ll consume less by first imagining savoring them one at a time.

Further reading?

Science, “Thought for Food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption,” Morewedge, et al.

The New York Times, “Real Evidence for Diets That Are Just Imaginary,” John Tierney



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4 Responses to Introducing the Imagination Diet

  1. Secret Admirer says:

    Your article is pretty interesting, and not what I would expect. I feel like it runs counter to the “once you pop, you can’t stop” philosophy. But, I think, if it is true, it is risky for someone on a diet. You do feel hungrier after doing this food visualization (you eat more cheese cubes). So….if you do all this imagining you might find yourself no longer in the mood for Reese’s, but now in the mood for a brownie (and eat more of it).

    I know, while hungry at school, that I have imagined what I would get for lunch. And then, the moment I get to the dining hall, I see something totally different and impulsively go for it. Maybe my food visualization was responsible for this impulsivity…I habituated to what I was thinking of getting so chose something else. Food for thought, no?

    • larafourman says:

      Very interesting. I guess if this practice is in fact integrated into your diet, you would have to be aware that you should eat what you imagined and not go for some other great option. If you implemented this imagination exercise, I think that it might work best if, immediately before eating, even when the food is sitting in front of you, you first imagined eating the food long enough for habituation to occur.

  2. Sam says:

    I love Reese’s. And this was a great post. Maybe by some miracle this will help me cut back on Reese’s, but it’s doubtful. More realiztically, this will help me cut back on other unhealthy foods.

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