Good news for dieters everywhere – stop trying not to think about that yummy treat because imagining eating it may actually reduce your desire to eat it! New research from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) contradicts the recognized wisdom that thinking about food will increase cravings. The study suggests that simply imagining the consumption of a food decreases ones appetite for it.

In a series of five experiments, three groups of participants imagined performing 33 repetitive actions one at a time; inserting 33 quarters into a laundry machine; inserting 30 quarters and eating three M&M's; and inserting three quarters and eating 33 M&M's. The participants were then permitted to eat freely from a bowl of M&M's and it was found that those participants who had imagined eating 30 M&M's ate significantly fewer M&M's than the participants that had not.

A follow-up experiment repeated the tasks with different numbers of repetitions and found similar results, but it was found that only imagining actual consumption reduced consumption, not merely imagining the food itself.

Other psychological processes that have been suggested to affect consumption of food include “priming” or changing the perception of the food's taste, but the results suggested reduction in consumption was due to “habituation”. In imagining consumption, the same neural machinery and emotional response is engaged as when actual consumption takes place.

"Habituation is one of the fundamental processes that determine how much we consume of a food or a product, when to stop consuming it, and when to switch to consuming another food or product," said Joachim Vosgerau, assistant professor of marketing at the CMU Tepper School of Business. "Our findings show that habituation is not only governed by the sensory inputs of sight, smell, sound and touch, but also by how the consumption experience is mentally represented. To some extent, merely imagining an experience is a substitute for actual experience. The difference between imagining and experiencing may be smaller than previously assumed."

"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," said Carey Morewedge, lead author of this study, and an assistant professor of social and decision sciences. "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. We think these findings will help develop future interventions to reduce cravings for things such as unhealthy food, drugs and cigarettes, and hope they will help us learn how to help people make healthier food choices."

The study is published in Science.