If you think about eating gummi bears repeatedly, you’ll eat less gummi bears.
Sounds odd? It’s true. Let me explain… (It has nothing to do with the nature of gummi bears.)
Typically, when you think about food, or when marketers make you think about food, your desire to eat that food increases along with your appetite. The power of the mind, right? And it’s not just mental: Thinking about food also prepares your body physiologically for eating and digesting (through production of gastric juices and saliva, hormonal responses, etc.).
As nutritional scientists have found, however, this only works below a certain threshold. If you imagine eating gummi bears just once or a couple of times, you’ll likely eat larger amounts when you get the chance to binge on them, yes, but if you imagine eating gummi bears 30 times in a row with the utmost vividness—focusing for 15 seconds per repetition on their look, smell, and texture as well as on the expected eating experience—then you’ll habituate and, in effect, eat smaller amounts.
Habituation effects were first discovered by Morewedge and colleagues in 2010 and have since been replicated with different foods including M&M’s, cheese cubes, gummi bears, and walnuts. When people imagined themselves eating these foods 3 times, they’d consume more afterwards; when they imagined themselves eating these foods 18-36 times, they’d habituate and thus consume less—compared to others who, e.g., imagined themselves throwing coins in a laundry machine. How much less? 20-25%.
Bear in mind, though, that habituation to food is a cognitive process, based particularly on memory processes. Mental fatigue, distraction, and lack of focus will impede your mental imagery’s habituation effects, leading you to consume more food after all. Missbach and colleagues tested this in 2014 by instructing some of their subjects “to count backward from one thousand in multiples of seven while standing on only one leg” before they started the mental imagery task. This cognitive pre-exhaustion undermined the habituation effect such that people ate more walnuts, no matter whether they had previously imagined themselves eating walnuts 18 times in a row or not. Others, however, who completed a less taxing task (counting backward from 500 in multiples of five while standing on both legs), ate less walnuts if they had previously imagined themselves eating them 18 times—they did habituate (because they had the cognitive resources to do so).
Interestingly, habituation is a purely objective (behavioral) phenomenon: It won’t reduce your subjective feeling of hunger. It won’t elevate your feeling of fullness. But it will make you eat less.
How can you apply these findings to your food-related willpower challenge?
Quite simple: Be aware of specific foods you enjoy eating just a bit too much. When you’re about to go on a binge, start to vividly imagine the sensory characteristics of the food (its look, smell, texture, solidity, etc.) and how its consumption will feel like. Imagine how you grab it, how you move your hand toward your opening mouth whose cavity gets moistened by mucous glands, how you press your teeth and lips together, how you use your jaw and tongue, what sensations you experience, etc. Imagine every detail as carefully and thoroughly as possible. The sharper your focus and the more vivid your imagination, the better it will work, the sooner you will habituate, and the more control you will have once you start eating. This will work particularly well when you overeat certain foods due to a need for sensory stimulation. Especially people who overeat out of boredom will benefit a lot from this technique.
Missbach, B., Florack, A., Weissmann, L., König, J. (2014). Mental imagery interventions reduce subsequent food intake only when self-regulatory resources are available. Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 5 (1391), doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01391.
Morewedge, C. K., Hun, Y. E., Vosgerau, J. (2010). Thought for food: imagined consumption reduces actual consumption. Science, Vol. 330 (6010), doi: 10.1126/science.1195701.