The most effective diet? Just imagine

“Mmmm, that double-fudge sundae – the taste is glorious. Wait, what am I doing?! I can’t think about that. I’m on a diet!”

Okay, relax. Not only is it okay for you to think about that amazing bit of indulgence – it might just be your best avoidance strategy.

Revolutionary Research

Enter the brain-trust from Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA, USA). Their research suggests if you repeatedly visualize eating that double-fudge sundae over a period of time, you’re less likely to actually do it.

Think about how revolutionary that statement is. I don’t know about you, but I was always taught not to think about doing the things that were bad for me.

And I’m willing to wager there are tens of millions of folks out there suffering horribly because of the same strategic error.

Discussing the research team’s work, lead author Carey Morewedge says…

“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.”

“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.”

By the way, wouldn’t the same strategy apply to anything we’re trying to avoid for emotional/mental/spiritual/physical health purposes? Tobacco, alcohol, drugs, relationships, pornography, and so on…

Habituation & Visualization

To grasp the  power of the research, we need to check-in with two bits of psychobabble…

  • Habituation: The process in which there’s a decrease in psychological and behavioral response to a stimulus after repeated exposure to it over a period of time.
  • Visualization: The mind responds to imagined/suggested stimuli as it would the real thing.

Easy enough, right? You’ve had experience with both many times – whether you knew it, or not. And within this particular context, the relationship between habituation and visualization is simple. To achieve habituation, visualization is being used to provide the “repeated exposure.”

“How did the experiment work?”

As with any legitimate research, the team went in to their work with an expectation. And though it doesn’t always happen, it turned out to be supported by the findings.

In an effort to test their notion that mentally simulating the consumption of food reduced consumption, they conducted a series of five experiments.

In summary, the experiments involved real and imagined tasks of inserting quarters into a laundry machine and eating M&Ms. Similar action, don’t you think?

The bottom-line: upon completion of the experiments, the participants who only imagined eating M&Ms ate significantly fewer when all of the participants were allowed to stuff their cheeks from a bowl.

The Take-Away

Very powerful words from team member Joachim Vosgerau…

“Our findings show that habituation is not only governed by the sensory inputs of sight, smell, sound and touch, but also by how the consumption experience is mentally represented. To some extent, merely imagining an experience is a substitute for actual experience. The difference between imagining and experiencing may be smaller than previously assumed.”

As we come to a close here, I need to make sure you’re dialed-in to the following…

According to the study, only imagining the consumption of the food reduced actual consumption. Simply thinking about the food – or imagining consumption of a substitute food – didn’t cut it.

Got it?

The research was funded by a grant awarded to Carey Morewedge from the Berkman Faculty Development Fund at Carnegie Mellon University. The study was published in the 12.10.10 issue of Science.