Mind Over Munchies

Featured Article, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition
on January 12, 2012
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Can you really “think yourself thin”? Intriguing research suggests that your mind does play more of a role than you might think when it comes to feelings of hunger and fullness, what and how much you eat, and, especially, overcoming seemingly automatic behaviors that lead to mindless munching.

Here are some proven ways to harness the power of your mind to help you lose weight and keep it off. 

Imagine eating all you want. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh found that people who pictured themselves eating 30 M&Ms consumed about half as many afterwards as those who pictured themselves eating only three M&Ms. The process, called habituation, is a skill people can learn to use to eat less, says researcher Dr. Carey Morewedge, a psychologist. “Imagination can elicit the same physical responses as real-life experience,” he says. “Imagining completing a task activates the same neural circuits as really doing the task.”

To use this research finding to cut cravings, imagine yourself eating the food, bite by bite, Morewedge says. Let yourself really think about the flavor, the texture and the experience, and mentally work your way through a large portion.  Imagine what it feels like to be totally satisfied. Do this just before you’re around the food, and you just might find that it helps you eat less.

Think indulgently. Yale University researchers found that people who thought they were having a 620-calorie milkshake had a steep drop in an appetite-stimulating hormone, ghrelin, compared to people who thought the milkshake had only 380 calories. “Thinking that a food is an indulgence actually influences how people’s bodies react to it,” said lead researcher Dr. Alia Crum. “We found that a change in mindset changes physiology, not just subjective feelings of satiation or hunger.” A drop in ghrelin is important in dieting. It signals to the brain that adequate nutrients have been digested so it can stop searching for food and speed up metabolism to digest the nutrients present.

To make this finding work for you, Crum says, approach meals and snacks with the mindset that you're indulging in a pleasurable visceral experience, savoring the tastes, smells and texture of the food.“I've found I can get into that indulgent mindset by eating whole nutritious foods, whole meals (less snacking or forcing myself to stop eating early) and by really noticing and appreciating everything I am eating,” she says.

Call yourself a healthy eater. Research shows that positive self-labels can influence behavior. In one study, people who were asked to label themselves as healthier eaters went on to consume more fruits and vegetables and fewer unhealthy foods than they had earlier. “By saying that you are a healthy eater, you are positioning your possible self,” says Dr. Tim Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. “We all have possible selves, and the gap between our actual self and our possible, ideal, self is a guide to self-improvement. Closing the gap between the two is a way to focus goals and works strongly to harness our motivation.” Reinforce this motivation by describing yourself as the person you want to be, he suggests. You’ll get the message–and so will people who can support your change in behavior. 

Come home through any door but the kitchen. Researchers at Cornell University found that when people came home through a door that didn’t lead to the kitchen, they were 18 percent less likely to graze. In fact, anything that disrupts routine eating behaviors can help you avoid the munchies, says Dr. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating. At work, make sure the candy bowl is out of reach, so you have to make a conscious decision to get up and walk to it. It may give you pause for thought: Do you really want to eat another piece? “The key is to make small changes in your environment so that you mindlessly munch less, rather than more,” Wansink says.