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How to Get Full on an Empty Stomach?

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Originally posted on July 3, 2014.

Have you ever wondered why some people struggle to avoid certain foods, whereas others have little trouble passing on a delectable dish? Childhood eating habits, genetics, and willpower offer possible answers. But researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University identified another explanation: Thinking about eating makes food seem less exciting.

If you imagine eating 10 pieces of pizza, your mind has already simulated what it’s like to eat pizza. When you see a real pizza, your brain’s pleasure centers no longer perk up. You’ve been there, done that. As a result, you consume less pizza.  

In a series of experiments, people who repeatedly imagined eating a food many times ate less of that food compared with those who imagined taking a few bites. Instead of pizza, the researchers used M&M candies. People who imagined eating 30 M&M’s, compared with those who imagined eating only three, ate fewer M&M’s. By simulating eating lots of M&M’s, the thrill from eating the bite-sized candies was gone.

The next time you struggle to avoid a tempting food, remember that you can train your brain not to want it. Just imagine eating large quantities of the food. Your brain will think it’s already had more than enough to eat and you will desire the food less. 

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About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”