Imagine Eating to Lose Weight (and Save Money)

Ready for what may be the cheapest and least time-consuming weight-loss technique of all time? 

Imagine eating a lot of a certain food, and you’re likely to eat less of it.

In a new study published in Science magazine, researchers discovered that when a person visualizes himself eating a lot of a certain food, he will then consume less of it. (See also: Small, Cheap Steps to Weight Loss)

Here’s what the researchers did:

“To investigate, Morewedge and colleagues Young Eun Huh and Joachim Vosgerau fed M&Ms and cheese cubes to 51 undergraduate students. In one experiment, the participants first imagined performing 33 repetitive motions: Half of them imagined eating 30 M&Ms and inserting three quarters into the slot of a laundry machine. The other half envisioned eating three M&Ms and inserting 30 quarters. Then everyone was allowed to eat their fill from a bowl of M&Ms. Those who'd envisioned eating more candy ate about three M&Ms on average (or about 2.2 grams), whereas the others ate about five M&Ms (or about 4.2 grams), the researchers report in the 10 December issue of Science.” (Emphasis added.)

This stems from the psychological principle of habituation, where there is a decrease in response after repeated exposure to something.

So while imagining a food normally makes you crave it, the opposite is true when you specifically visualize eating that food bite by bite until you imagine consuming the entire thing. This is similar to the idea of mindful eating that Michael Pollan writes about in his books In Defense of Food and Food Rules. In describing how to not eat too much he advises: 

Pay more, eat less.

Eat meals.

Do all of your eating at a table. 

Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.

Try not to eat alone.

Consult your gut.

All of these ideas encourage conscious eating. That is, actually thinking about and enjoying the food you're eating. This is similar to habituation because you are actively thinking about your food choices, but you're thinking about what you're eating while you're eating it, not before.

And besides losing weight, eating less can also help you save money.

Let's say you actually use these visualization techniques and successfully eat less food. How much money would you save by eating less? Putting aside health care or other difficult-to-quantify costs, here are some numbers:

If you typically spend an average of $350 each month on food and are able to reduce your consumption by 5%, you would save $17.50 each month. This isn't a lot, but say you put this into a 6% investment. In 35 years, this would be a savings of approximately $24,000.

So next time you are trying to eat less or lose weight, instead of spending money on diet programs and books, try visualizing eating your meal before you actually eat it.

I wonder if this same principle would also apply to personal finance issues such as reducing consumption behaviors like overspending or compulsive shopping. Thoughts?

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Guest's picture

I can save 7 calories (2 M&M's) just by imagining and going through the motions of thinking about eating M&M's??!!!??

Holy Crow!!! "Sitting and Thinking" burns about 100 calories per hr. If it takes me 6 minutes of imagining to stop eating 2 M&M's -- I can easily DOUBLE my savings to $48,000 in *only* 35 years.

WOW!! Good thing a lot of thought was put into this article!!!!

Do logical fallacies burn more calories than clear thinking??
They should.

Guest's picture

Sounds pretty bogus to me. A sample size of 51 hardly makes a legitimate study. I feel like if you pick other foods than M&M and cheese cubes, the results will be different. In fact, I imagined a lot of cheeseburgers just now, and it's definitely making me want one...

I also don't think the same principle will stop me from overspending, either. On the other hand, picturing myself becoming rich deters me from buying necessary things. It probably just differs from person to person.

Guest's picture

Hmmm... I have a couple tricks.

Say I want a bowl of ice cream. It works instead to eat a carrot, followed by a spoonful of ice cream. What matters is the last taste that is in your mouth.

Another exercise I do is to have a bite of sweet and hold it in my mouth absolutely as long as possible. When I do this I note just how really good this sweet is. It's good but honestly only a fraction of good as I had thought. Somehow a forbidden food becomes better in our heads just because we think we can't have it.

Single bites of food do count as calories... be sure to add them in to your tally.

The point about reducing food consumption as a way to cut the grocery bill is really quite valid. Yeah, sure some of the cheapest foods are the most fattening. A good rule is to diet just by eating a third less of the same foods you normally eat... so automatically you cut your grocery bill by 33%.

Remember to that the less you weigh, the fewer calories it takes to maintain that weight... you burn more calories just carrying around the extra weight. For most people, it works out to something like 13 calories needed to maintain a pound of body weight (depending on different variables like how much physical activity you do). So if you permanently lose weight, you permanently cut your grocery bill.

Ultimately weight loss and weight maintenance is a very personal thing, what works for you. For some people the exercise in this article might work.

Guest's picture

I'm surprised that the participants only ate 3 or 5 m&m's. How is that possible. If I had been a participant the results would have been quite different. Now, give me that endless bowl of m&m's.

Guest's picture

Great post! I think the toughest challenge, especially for college students is stocking up on the right food, hence the default to eating out... and when you eat out you eat out!

Andrea Karim's picture

I'd be interested in seeing how people would respond in a similar study, but using something like a hamburger - since M&Ms and cheese cubes are distinct little entities that you can stop eating without feeling like you are wasting food, I wonder if the same concept is possible if you, say, cut up your sandwich into long slices or something?

My guess is, no. It's really hard to stop eating a hamburger. But I'd still be curious to know if the same concept, carried out with a more meal-like food sample, could be used to curb appetite. It's true that if you smell food all the time, that can curb your hunger (I recall this from working food service, where spending all day in a kitchen made me not want to eat at night).

Guest's picture

This article is featured in the March 3rd edition of the Health Wonk Review. Thanks for your submission!