Can your imagination help you stop eating?
December 9th, 2010
02:01 PM ET

Can your imagination help you stop eating?

A powerful craving for chocolate candy takes hold. Imagine popping that chocolate into your mouth. Then crunch through its candy shell, chew the chocolate center as it melts in your mouth and swallow. Then go through this imaginary motion 29 more times.

The repetitive imagery of eating could help people consume less, according to a study released Thursday in the journal Science.

“If we imagine performing it, if we’re chewing and swallowing and imagining consumption, it decreases our desire for the food we imagine eating,” said Carey Morewedge, lead author of the study.

It may seem counter intuitive. Shouldn’t thinking about eating a delicious, melting chocolate candy make you crave it more?

In the experiment at Carnegie Mellon University, participants were divided into three groups. The first group imagined inserting 33 quarters into a laundry machine, performing 33 repetitive actions. The second group imagined inserting 30 quarters into a laundry machine and then imagined eating three M&M'S. The third group imagined inserting three quarters into a laundry machine and then imagined eating 30 M&M'S.

Then, all three groups ate freely from a bowl filled with M&M'S after they were told they would take a taste test. The third group that imagined eating 30 M&M'S ate significantly fewer candy than the other two groups. The researchers conducted five different variations of this experiment using cheese and M&M'S.

Researchers believe the decreased desire to eat food could be from habituation – a decreased response to stimulus because of repeated exposure. For example, a tenth bite of chocolate is less delicious than the very first bite, because your taste buds have gotten used to or habituated to its taste.

“We demonstrated that habituation to a food item can occur even when its consumption is merely imagined,” wrote the authors.

After all, the participants who merely imagined eating 30 blocks of cheese or M&M'S didn’t want to eat much of it.

“It’s not affecting how much people enjoy taste of the food,” said Morewedge. “It seems to affect our desire to attain more of it.”

The imagination experiments appeared to be food specific – meaning those who imagined eating 30 pieces of cheese weren’t deterred from helping themselves to M&M'S, and those who imagined eating 30 M&M'S weren’t turned away by cheese.

“Habituation has been shown to be food specific,” Morewedge said.

These findings that the imagination could play a powerful role in affecting appetite, could have bigger implications for the battle against the bulge.

“We hope this kind of research gives us insight into behavioral intervention to regulate food intake,” Morewedge said. “We know that feeling of fullness doesn’t come immediately when eating. It comes later on. Habituation occurs more quickly.”

With better research on habituation, it could help people regulate food intake.

Morewedge said they’re testing different ways that “imagination induction” could help people eat more healthy food and find unhealthy foods like potato chips less appealing.

“It might be useful induction for cigarettes- whether repetitive imagery decreases cravings, and the neurological and psychological process,” he said.

soundoff (61 Responses)
  1. T3chsupport

    In the time it took me to imagine eating 30 pieces of chocolate, I ate 8 Starbursts.
    8 is less than 30... does that mean it worked?

    December 9, 2010 at 15:37 | Report abuse | Reply
    • cinders23


      December 10, 2010 at 08:21 | Report abuse |
  2. bill

    This is true..as a hypnotist..which is a greek word for sleep..I approve of everything said..But you have to subsitute something for the goodies...dream of a healthy, slim, beautiful body...and yes keep a picture of some healthy looking men or women with sharp bikini bodies...Think positive..It is hard to do this..but the effort is worth it..Day by day in everyway I am getting better and better..Go Gegan as much as you can..make up your mind that you will do this for you..start now..I am committing my self right now to all of you out there, that I am going to lose weight and look good..I am 80 years of age..and you ladies out there had better run when you see me....Bill The Greek from Las Vegas..

    December 9, 2010 at 15:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • CP

      oh my...i'm so glad "Bill the Greek Hypnotist" approves of this article. I feel so validated.

      December 10, 2010 at 09:15 | Report abuse |
  3. bill

    also do not keep bad food around...I cut out meat...I buy small things that I like, taste them and give them to the small birds outside of my house...habits in food are hard to change..but we can slowly...I am proud of all of you out there...Bill Vegas.

    December 9, 2010 at 15:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Colleen

    You participate in a study where someone asks you to imagine eating an M&M 30 times, then you're asked to participate in a taste test of M&Ms. Perhaps you're feeling selfconscious about how many you eat beacuse it's the same item you were just asked to imagine over and over? Perhaps you feel you are being scrutinized rather closely beceause the item you imagined is the same item you are now "taste testing"? Did anyone in the study follow up with the participants and see if this is an issue?

    December 9, 2010 at 16:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Stacey

      I'm assuming they weren't asked to participate in a "taste test", there was just a bowl of candy (or cheese) on the table while they waited for the 'test' they were going to take. So they wouldn't have even associated the M&Ms with part of the experiment. We did a similar experiment with similar findings when I did my undergrad in Food, Nutrition, and Dietetics.

      December 9, 2010 at 18:39 | Report abuse |
  5. Kevin

    ...Or they were tired of M&Ms, one by one, thirty times.

    Perhaps they would of went for a similar candy, like skittles.

    I say it is a poorly executed experiment.

    December 9, 2010 at 16:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Kevin

      Apparently I skipped over "The imagination experiments appeared to be food specific".
      Oh well.

      December 9, 2010 at 16:40 | Report abuse |
    • George

      Dude, just shutup. You don't know what you are talking about. I am a scientist and this study was very accuratly completed

      December 9, 2010 at 18:43 | Report abuse |
    • Stonetrails

      The "scientist" said "Dude". . .
      Unless you did this study, yourself, you do not know if it was "scientific" or not. You base your statement on the statement of another, not on test-specific, in-situ, scientific evaluation of your own.
      Ya, and there is "scientific" evidence in the tabloids that Bill Clinton is actually an alien. Well, ok, he is, so that is a bad example. . .

      December 10, 2010 at 09:16 | Report abuse |
  6. A. Nony

    Imagine how dreadful you will feel if you gorge yourself. Imagine how ghastly you will look if you get fat. Or, just suck it up, turn on the will power and stop whining about how difficult everything is.

    December 9, 2010 at 19:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Joe Rioux

      hear, hear. People should stop being babies with no self-control.

      December 9, 2010 at 23:01 | Report abuse |
  7. Bob

    Visualization and creative Imagination contribute more to innovation and change than do our computer like intellects!

    December 9, 2010 at 22:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Joe Rioux

    I know the press distorts things, but really. THIS is a scientific conclusion? THIS is supposed to be a scientific study? I can't believe this research was even funded.

    December 9, 2010 at 23:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Mary

    Not habitation... habituation.

    December 10, 2010 at 00:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. peter klika

    This so-called study is pathetic. Americans insist on a "magic bullet" to cure their obesity but refuse to eat healthy natural foods in reasonable portions. It really is that simple. The American diet industry has turned being obese into a profit center. Just put down the Big Mac and feedbag of potato chips and you will be surprised. No imagination or magic bullet necessary. Peter Klika, Kapaau. Hawaii ( we eat natural here– how quaint). Aloha

    December 10, 2010 at 02:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. peter klika

    And another thing: As long as the American media gives us this "junk science" it will just reinforce the beleif among obese people that they just need the right "magic diet" and never really just need to EAT LESS. Get it? Well maybe not. Aloha

    December 10, 2010 at 02:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. maddawg


    you do know that if you stop eating.........in two weeks or so..........you'll DIE.

    December 10, 2010 at 06:52 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Breanna

    I peaked at about 460 pounds and have lost around 60 pounds so far this year (just about the most you can lose at a healthy rate without messing up your heart) – I'm only 22 and have eaten ridiculous amounts of food at will since I was 12. It was not that hard to transition to eating healthily. Just put down the fork, folks. Remind yourself that half the world doesn't have adequate food and donate what you would have been eating excessively, remind yourself that your heart is going to turn on you if you keep it up, do whatever you have to do and put down the fork. Quit whining about how hard it is and just do it.

    Most of the food even tastes better, as soon as I stopped going to Wendy's and treated my taste buds to some homemade lasagna or chicken n biscuits (both of which can be made healthily and eaten in smaller portions with other good and healthy foods) I couldn't stand to eat at Wendy's anymore.

    Buy low salt things whenever you can (everything from chicken base to soy sauce can be found in low sodium varieties), only drink water (your body will thank you, believe me), and refuse to treat yourself more than once a week (and even then, get something like a glazed doughnut rather than a king size candy bar full of peanut butter, etc). That's a good place to start and you'll find weening yourself off eating badly isn't difficult.

    December 10, 2010 at 07:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • cinders23

      Well stated, Breanna. Continued success is wished for you!

      December 10, 2010 at 08:21 | Report abuse |
    • jillmarie

      Wow! Good for you. You have a healthy mindset many can learn from. Congrats on your journey to remain healthy.

      December 11, 2010 at 12:01 | Report abuse |
  14. Eric T

    Half of our country is addicted to food but I can't unwind at the end of the day with a little heroin. Hypocrites.

    December 10, 2010 at 07:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Rearview

    Just imagine yourself looking like Michelle Obama if you eat that box of chocolates. Trust me...you will NOT eat it.

    December 10, 2010 at 08:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Snowflake

      Michelle Obama is a beautiful lady. I'm not sure what your problem is.

      December 11, 2010 at 03:49 | Report abuse |
  16. Dr Bill Toth

    I imagine that it could be that nothing tastes as good as slim and trim feels. Live with Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog

    December 10, 2010 at 08:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. Lynn

    Crap now I want some M&M's. Can I image someone buying them for me does that work as well probably not I imagine winning the lotto every week but that hasn't happened either! :<(

    December 10, 2010 at 08:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jesse in Maryland

      Just imagine yourself losing the lotto thirty or forty times, and then you'll want to play it less. Isn't that how this works?

      December 10, 2010 at 09:22 | Report abuse |
  18. Yum

    When I was younger every kid had a snack at snack time in school but I never brought one, I just imagined eating what they were eating and it worked then, why not try it now?

    December 10, 2010 at 09:43 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Anna

    This is not a joke. We have to do something. Here is a five step plan that worked for me (lost 30 lbs two years ago and did not find them again.)
    1. Don't wait for the government or anybody else to solve your problems of any kind.
    2. Throw out all junk food you have in your house and think of fast food places as feed-locks for people.
    3. Cut off cable TV so you don't get brainwashed by food ads, then diet pill adds.
    4. Go for a walk daily, even 10 min. helps a lot.
    5. Cook from scratch when you have time; freeze some for later when you don't have time.

    December 10, 2010 at 09:44 | Report abuse | Reply
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  21. CleverCandi

    Obviously, there were no PMSing women involved in this study. I keep a candy dish on my desk and when that time of the month rolls around, there had better be some chocolate in there or you-know-what hits the fan BIG TIME!

    December 10, 2010 at 12:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Snowflake

    I agree with those who think the study participants were simply "bored" by M & M's but probably would have eaten plenty of Reeses.

    December 11, 2010 at 03:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Chef Aaron

    I see evidence of this everyday. Bake 300 cookies and you really don't feel like eating one. Habituation can turn food into a thing, as a cashier would feel about paper money.

    December 12, 2010 at 13:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. razzlea

    I agree with this articile, Check out my health and fitness blog http://razzlea.blogspot.com/

    December 13, 2010 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. nygirl

    i think this study is really cool. so try it maybe this is a step to decreasing the obesity. oh......merry christmas(christmas is 11 days away and counting):)

    December 14, 2010 at 22:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ms.keepitreal

      i really agree with that that could be apart of a plan that you can use to lose weight.
      1. imagine you've already eaten the food so you don't eat AS much of it
      2. exercise

      February 7, 2011 at 20:51 | Report abuse |
  26. Peter Klika

    How refreshing> It really is that simple: Put down the fork, eat healthy foods in reasonable portions, accept slow but steady results, and resist the hype that there is some magic bullet: Common sense and eating sensibly is the "Magic bullet". Peter Klika, Kapaau, Hawaii (We don't got no "metabolic syndrome" here. People actually get exercise and eat healthy food. How quaint) Aloha

    December 16, 2010 at 02:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Peter Klika

    I am imagining eating a no calorie Big Mac and having a triple malt no calorie milkshake. And then I will apply for SSI because I'm even fatter and my "magic bullet" diet didn't work. Just take some reasponsibility for your eating habits.

    December 16, 2010 at 02:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Peter Klika

    Can't we all just eat less? Is that such an outrageous idea? Less of something?

    December 16, 2010 at 02:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Peter Klika

    Do you understand why there are no obese celebrities?

    December 16, 2010 at 02:21 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Really informable information with point to point.

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