LOS ANGELES – Obsessing about a particular food in a particular way appeared to dampen its appeal in an unusual study that demonstrates that merely thinking about a food – not actually seeing, touching, smelling or tasting it – can help sate hunger through a process called habituation.
In an experiment described in Friday’s edition of the journal Science, researchers asked volunteers to devote about a minute and a half to methodically imagining chewing and swallowing 30 M&M’s, one after another after another. Then, when presented with a bowl of actual M&M’s, those volunteers ate about half as many candies as volunteers who imagined eating only three M&M’s, or none at all.
The finding challenges the conventional wisdom that thinking about a food makes you eat more of it, said study leader Carey Morewedge, a professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
“Thought suppression tends to sensitize people to craving,” he said. “A better way to deal with cravings might be to imagine indulging them.”
Morewedge said he believes imaginary eating works because it triggers habituation, the psychological phenomenon that explains why we get used to things that initially seem annoying.
Because habituation is food-specific, the rigors of this type of exercise might make it difficult for everyday dieters.