Mind over platter: Imagining meals as larger than they really are reduces snacking

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — We’ve all had eyes that are bigger than our stomachs at some point. However, researchers from the prestigious University of Cambridge suggest that the mind can supersede the stomach in a different way with just a little bit of imagination. Scientists say visualizing a recent meal as bigger and more filling than it actually was in reality may help cut down on snacking.

Prior research has already established that the meal-recall effect, or remembering a recent meal, can reduce food consumption later on. For this project, the research team at Cambridge focused specifically on the meal-recall effect of imagining that a recent meal was twice as big and satisfying as it actually was in reality, or of recalling a recent meal in great detail (how it felt to chew and swallow the food).

Study authors put together an experiment involving 151 people. Ultimately, they discovered that imagining a meal as larger and more filling than it was in reality led to the participants eating 24 fewer grams in cookies later on – equivalent to roughly two cookies, or 122 fewer calories. Attempting to vividly recall the meal, however, did not result in the meal-recall effect.

“Your mind can be more powerful than your stomach in dictating how much you eat,” says lead study author Dr. Joanna Szypula, who conducted the research while a PhD student at Cambridge’s Department of Psychology, in a media release. “Our findings could give people a method to control their eating with their mind.”

Imagining a bigger meal was the best strategy

Study participants received a microwave-ready meal of rice and sauce, as well as a cup of water. They had to finish their meal, but not if it made them feel uncomfortably full. For the next three hours, the group could not to eat anything else. Then, everyone came back to the lab for imagination tasks before a “taste test” involving cookies.

Researchers randomly assigned the participants to five groups. Three of the groups had to recall their recent lunch at the lab. They then had to either imagine moving their recent lunch around a plate, remember eating their recent lunch in great detail, or imagine that their recent lunch was twice as large and filling than it really was.

The fourth cohort, meanwhile, viewed an image of spaghetti hoops in tomato sauce, wrote a description of it, and then imagined moving the food around a plate. The fifth group received the same instructions, but researchers exchanged the spaghetti for stationery (paperclips and rubber bands).

From there, all participants took part in a bogus “taste test” featuring chocolate fingers, digestives, and chocolate chip cookies. Everyone had to rate the cookies according to 12 distinct taste attributes, like crunchiness and saltiness. The volunteers could eat as many cookies as they wanted and were even told the snacks would be thrown away after the session either way due to hygiene reasons. This wasn’t actually true, but researchers wanted to make the group as comfortable as possible about potentially indulging themselves.

Participants who imagined spaghetti hoops ate the most cookies (75.9g), followed closely by the group who had to imagine stationary (75.5g). People instructed to imagine moving their lunch around the plate ate the third most cookies (72.0g), with the cohort who relived eating their lunch (70.0g) coming in fourth. However, participants who imagined a much larger lunch ate the fewest biscuits (51.1g).

Couple sitting on supermarket floor eating chips, snacks
(© Drobot Dean – stock.adobe.com)

Imagination can change perception

As a final phase, everyone in the experiment had to estimate the size of their lunch by spooning out rice and sauce in an attempt to recreate the original portion size. Somewhat surprisingly, those who imagined the meal as twice as big ended up significantly underestimating portion size.

This finding in particular, researchers explain, suggests while people did lower their intake of cookies after trying the imagination task, they were still quite aware of the real, smaller food portion they ate earlier. It also indicates that this observed effect probably isn’t a result of falsely remembering the meal as bigger than reality. The research team did not note such an effect among the other groups.

“More research is needed to understand how and why the meal-recall effect works,” Dr. Szypula concludes. “This might mean that we are able to harness the effect in a more efficient way and possibly offer valuable advice to people.”

The study is published in the journal Appetite.

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