Updated: Feb 7, 2022
Emerging evidence suggests that calorie-dense foods may activate the same chemical pathways in your brain as addictive drugs.¹ Much like addictive drugs, junk food may stimulate excess release of dopamine, the brain’s feel-good hormone.² Over time, you may become desensitized to this response which means that your brain will release less dopamine the next time you eat junk food.³ This often leads to overeating to achieve the same amount of pleasure that was once derived from a single bite of junk food.³ Food cravings may be curbed to some extent by imaging yourself eating food. Yup, you read that right!
It seems counterintuitive to suggest that imagined food consumption will decrease actual food consumption. The smell of steak, for instance, will induce salivation in anticipation of its consumption.⁴ But the consumption of a stimulus, let's take M&M's as an example, leads to habituation. The thirtieth M&M, for instance, will not be as satisfying as the first. In one study, scientists hypothesized that simply imagining yourself eating M&M's will lead to habituation and therefore less subsequent consumption of the candy.⁵ This idea is not as crazy as it sounds when it is placed in context to what we already know about the power of imagery. For example, it has been demonstrated in the lab that your body will produce the same response to imagining a spider crawling across your leg as it would in the presence of an actual spider.⁶
To put this hypothesis to the test, researchers divided participants into three groups. In the first and second group, participants were asked to vividly imagine themselves eating thirty and three M&M's respectively. In the third control group, participants were asked to imagine themselves inserting thirty quarters into a laundry machine to mimic the task of eating M&Ms. Following this, researchers gave participants a bowl of M&Ms and asked them to eat as little or as much as they desired. Surprisingly, the group that imagined themselves eating thirty M&Ms ate fewer candies than both of the two other groups. But this outcome was only observed when the imagined food was consistent with the actual food. In another study conducted by the same researchers, participants that imagined themselves eating M&Ms did not demonstrate a subsequent decrease in the amount of cheddar cheese that they consumed.⁵ It was therefore concluded that imagined food consumption led to habituation and a decrease in the participants' desire to consume M&M's as opposed to producing feelings of fullness.
Before you throw your gym membership into the garbage, there are some caveats that must be acknowledged when interpreting these findings. First and foremost, subjects in the imagined consumption group only ate, on average, one fewer M&M than participants that were asked to imagine inserting quarters into a laundry machine. Furthermore, the researchers did not examine the effectiveness of imagined consumption on long-term weight loss. It is still the case that interventions targeting physical activity and diet are the most effective methods of losing and keeping weight off.⁷ It is also important to remember that this experiment was performed in a lab. The benefits of imagined consumption may not be replicated in real-life settings where individuals are simultaneously exposed to the sight, smell, and taste of food. All of this is not to say that these results are useless. Like any other weight loss tool, it must be integrated into a toolbox that is used to make sustainable progress over time.
Volkow, N. D., Wang, G.-J., Tomasi, D., & Baler, R. D. (2013). The addictive dimensionality of obesity. Biological Psychiatry (1969), 73(9), 811–818. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.12.020
Small, D. M., Jones-Gotman, M., & Dagher, A. (2003). Feeding-induced dopamine release in dorsal striatum correlates with meal pleasantness ratings in healthy human volunteers. NeuroImage (Orlando, Fla.), 19(4), 1709–1715. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1053-8119(03)00253-2
Stoeckel, L. E., Weller, R. E., Cook, E. W., Twieg, D. B., Knowlton, R. C., & Cox, J. E. (2008). Widespread reward-system activation in obese women in response to pictures of high-calorie foods. NeuroImage (Orlando, Fla.), 41(2), 636–647. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2008.02.031
Dadds, M. R., Bovbjerg, D. H., Redd, W. H., & Cutmore, T. R. H. (1997). Imagery in human classical conditioning. Psychological Bulletin, 122(1), 89–103. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.122.1.89
Morewedge, C. K., Huh, Y. E., & Vosgerau, J. (2010). Thought for food: Imagined consumption reduces actual consumption. Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science), 330(6010), 1530–1533. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1195701
Lang, P. J. (1977). Imagery in therapy: an information processing analysis of fear. Behavior Therapy, 8(5), 862–886. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7894(77)80157-3
Dombrowski, S. U., Knittle, K., Avenell, A., Araújo-Soares, V., & Sniehotta, F. F. (2014). Long term maintenance of weight loss with non-surgical interventions in obese adults: systematic review and meta-analyses of randomised controlled trials. BMJ : British Medical Journal, 348(may14 6). https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g2646