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December 10, 2010

Researchers Claim Pretending To Eat Can Curb Cravings

Your imagination could be your greatest asset in the fight to lose weight and keep the pounds off, researchers from a Pennsylvania university claim in a new study.

According to lead author Carey Morewedge, Assistant Professor of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), imagining that you are eating a food that you crave can reduce the amount of that food that you actually consume. The new findings dispute the long-accepted notion that mentally focusing on a particular type of food could increase cravings for that product.

"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," Morewedge said in a statement Thursday. "Our studies found that instead, people who repeatedly imagined the consumption of a morsel of food--such as an M&M or cube of cheese--subsequently consumed less of that food than did people who imagined consuming the food a few times or performed a different but similarly engaging task."

"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," the CMU professor added.

According to a university press release, the researchers took their inspiration from research which had demonstrated that "perception and mental imagery engages neural machinery in a similar fashion and similarly affect emotions, response tendencies and skilled motor behavior." Morewedge and colleagues tested their hypothesis in a series of five experiments.

In the first, groups pictured themselves performing different combinations of inserting quarters into a laundry machine and eating M&M's candies. Members of each group were then allowed to eat freely from a bowl of the candy-coated chocolates, and the results showed that those who imagined eating the most M&M's actually consumed the least. A second, similar experiment produced the same results.

"The last three experiments showed that the reduction in actual consumption following imagined consumption was due to habituation--a gradual reduction in motivation to eat more of the food--rather than alternative psychological processes such as priming or a change in the perception of the food's taste," the CMU press release said.

"Specifically, the experiments demonstrated that only imagining the consumption of the food reduced actual consumption of the food," it added. "Merely thinking about the food repeatedly or imaging the consumption of a different food did not significantly influence the actual consumption of the food that participants were given."

The results of the study have been published in the journal Science.

"We think our results may be used to craft behavioral interventions that allow people to eat less of the unhealthy foods they crave and also to choose healthier foods," Morewedge told Guardian Science Correspondent Alok Jha on Thursday. "We hope it can also be used to give us [help] on cravings for other substances including cigarettes and alcohol."

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