Regardless of whether you’re dieting or simply want to eat better, committing to a healthy, balanced diet is a habit we can all benefit from. We know eating well helps us maximize our productivity and minimize our chance of heart disease, among other things, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The difficulty lies in needing to resist temptation in order to achieve our goals.
Everyone has that one meal they can’t say no to. You’ve probably been there yourself. The more you try to resist your urge, the more it persists.
To avoid eating unhealthy foods, we must be disciplined and learn to delay our need for immediate gratification. But it doesn’t have to be a constant battle, as one recent research study found. It can be a lot easier than you think.
In one study conducted by Dr. Carey Morewedge (2010), participants imagined performing 33 repetitive actions, one at a time. A control group imagined inserting 33 quarters into a laundry machine (an action similar to eating M&Ms). A second group imagined inserting 30 quarters into a laundry machine and then imagined eating three M&Ms. A third group imagined inserting three quarters into a laundry machine and then imagined eating 30 M&Ms.
Next, all participants ate freely from a bowl filled with, you guessed it, M&Ms. But here’s where it gets interesting: Participants who imagined eating 30 M&Ms actually ate significantly fewer M&Ms than did participants in the other two groups.
This experiment demonstrated that imagining the consumption of a food reduced actual consumption of it. In other words, the more you think about eating your favorite snack, the less you’re actually motivated to eat it.
This might sound counterintuitive; wouldn’t thinking about something make you want it more? Apparently not, as Dr. Morewedge argues:
These findings suggest that trying to suppress one’s thoughts of desired foods in order to curb cravings for those foods is a fundamentally flawed strategy. Our studies found that instead, people who repeatedly imagined the consumption of a morsel of food — such as an M&M or cube of cheese — subsequently consumed less of that food than did people who imagined consuming the food a few times or performed a different but similarly engaging task.
Morewedge and his researchers found that repeated exposure to a particular food — as in taking one bite after another — decreased the desire to consume more. This process, which psychologists call habituation, dampened participants’ appetites, independent of physiological signals such as rising blood sugar levels or an expanding stomach. If habituation can be used to dampen appetites, can it be used to reduce other cravings as well?
The buck doesn’t stop with unhealthy snacks. We all crave bad behaviors regardless of whether we want to. It’s simple: Given a choice, bad habits always trump good ones because they’re easier. They’re the path of least resistance. For example: Sleeping in when we should be working on an important project. Surfing the Internet when we should be returning emails. Checking Facebook when we should be focusing on our workout.
Some are worse than others, but all of them rivet our attention and hamstring our ability to build better habits. If we can imagine doing them, however, perhaps we can forgo the siren song of our vices.
Simply thinking about the last time we exercised can encourage us to exercise again. Can we rely on autobiographical memory to demotivate us as well? Here are a few examples to consider.
Social media: I recently deleted all my social media apps on my phone. No Facebook. No Twitter. No Mailchimp. Nothing. I found I was overly checking them so decided to make my bad habit less accessible. If I really needed to check them, I could go through my browser.
Turns out I didn’t really need to check anything. If I did feel the urge, I simply imagined myself checking them. I soon realized I wasn’t missing anything important.
Coffee: Books like Caffeinated: How Our Daily Habit Helps, Hurts and Hooks Us are popularizing why coffee might be a habit worth kicking. And for good reason: according to one source, the average American spends $1,092 on coffee annually (Muniz, 2014). That’s a lot of money. Unless you must have your Starbucks fix, wouldn’t simply imagining drinking a Frappuccino suffice?
Television: Are you watching television because you really want to or because it’s an easy behavior? Granted, there’s nothing wrong with watching television; we all enjoy it and especially in company. But what about when you watch it to your detriment? Imagine how much more you’ll enjoy it after you’ve done what you need to do today.
Eating unhealthy snacks in our imagination can quell our urges to eat them in reality. This much we know. But thinking about behaviors we want or need to avoid might help us to curb other cravings as well. This has worked for others; it can work for you too.
Morewedge, C. (2010). Thought for Food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption. Science, 10(330), pp. 1530-1533.
Muniz, K. (2014). 20 Ways Americans Are Blowing Their Money. Available at: http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/personalfinance/2014/03/24/20-ways-we-blow-our-money/6826633/ Accessed: 2 February 2015.