Surprising weight loss hack: Watching others indulge in junk food

Are you trying to lose weight and get healthy? Surround yourself with junk food eaters.

Imagine being at home one evening, watching your favorite TV show on the couch. An advertisement shows a tasty burger in its full glory.

Zooming in on each ingredient, the camera shows:

  • The crisp salad
  • The tender meat
  • The rich, creamy sauce
  • The crunchy French fries and one person enjoying this delightful flavor range

It seems like your diet is about to take a hit. However, this might not be the case.

According to studies published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, advertising showing people eating junk food prompted dieters to consume fewer calories [12]. This may seem counterintuitive, but previous research on mental imagery supports these findings. Researchers have found that imagining ourselves executing actions or feeling emotions activates neural networks similar to those associated with their actual performance.

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How does imagining eating affect us?

In a remarkable way, the images we see throughout our lives shape our experiences. Neuroimage studies show that seeing someone hit by a hammer activates the pain-related neural networks in our brains [3]. Therefore, these images will trigger negative emotions and behavior.

The same effects apply to food consumption as well. Consumption imagery refers to images depicting food consumption, such as close-ups of pizzas and people eating them in ads. Consumption imagery may even lead people to recall eating the food on display incorrectly, according to some studies.

What is the significance of this? We can feel full just by thinking we have eaten something. 

Researchers asked participants to picture themselves eating 3 or 30 M&Ms [4]. Then they got a bowl of sweets.

People who had visualized themselves eating 30 pieces of the chocolates ended up feeling satiated and eating fewer sweets than those who pictured themselves eating only 3. Researchers took this research a step further to see if the effect holds when people see someone else eating in an advertisement.

When you are dieting, you eat less when you see someone eating.

An ad was shown to 132 dieting students at Grenoble Ecole de Management. Half of them saw an M&M’s advertisement filled with consumption imagery: sweets, colors and a person eating them [5]. 

Another half of the students saw an ad with two animated M&M’s at a supermarket till without any consumption imagery. The students were given a 70g cup of M&M’s to eat to their hearts’ content. Students who saw the M&M’s advertisement containing consumption imagery ate fewer sweets than students who did not see the advertisement.

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In a follow-up study, 130 students saw a hamburger advertisement. Half of the volunteers were asked to imagine eating the hamburger, and the other half to imagine filming it. 

Chocolate-covered biscuit sticks were then handed out to students. Those who watched the advertisement and imagined eating the hamburger ate fewer chocolate-coated biscuits than those who only imagined filming it. It is enough to see someone eating junk food to make people avoid it.

What can diet campaigns do to help you lose weight?

The next study tested whether these findings could be used to promote healthy eating. Dieters are more likely to respond to healthy eating campaigns that use images of unhealthy eating. Four ads were designed to incentivize healthy eating [6].

A total of 594 American adults participated in the online study. Each participant saw one of four ads randomly.

People who viewed the French fries campaign without consumption imagery showed a desire to eat fewer than those who viewed the campaign with consumption imagery. In contrast to those who imagined themselves eating French fries, those who visualized themselves eating an apple were more likely to succumb to potato chips.

Current public policy practices rely on images of nutrient-rich foods to promote healthy eating [7]. In spite of this, research indicates that healthy eating campaigns should include and portray unhealthy food consumption. Dieters who visualize themselves eating junk food consciously associate it with failure to lose weight.

What does all this mean?

The importance of health and well-being is increasing among people today [8]. Those who are resolving to eat healthier and lose weight in 2023 should resist the urge to cover their eyes when seemingly tempting ads appear [9]. 

Think about reaching out to the forbidden food with your lips instead. We might just cut down on our unhealthy eating habits.

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[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7146242/
[2] https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/EJM-07-2021-0566/full/html?skipTracking=true
[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20946964/
[4] https://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/12/10/3090320.htm
[5] https://theconversation.com/institutions/grenoble-ecole-de-management-gem-2181
[6] https://www.salon.com/2023/04/26/how-watching-others-eat-junk-can-cut-our-appetite-and-help-us-lose-weight_partner/
[7] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/campaign-launched-to-help-public-get-healthy-this-summer
[8] https://www.theinspiredhomeshow.com/blog/consumers-prioritize-health-and-wellness-for-2023/
[9] https://civicscience.com/what-will-americans-resolve-to-change-in-2023/

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