Thinking yourself thin at the holiday table

Woman standing on weighing scale, low section

So, picture this: you’re at a friend’s holiday party, full of good cheer. Maybe you have a drink in hand, you’re laughing and catching up with people, swinging regularly by the candlelit dining room table, which is overflowing with the most glorious food: cheeses you can’t pronounce, fancy little appetizers nestled in puff pastry, shrimp cocktail, dips and nuts and something incredible with bacon and…oh my, is that an entire table over there just with desserts? You nosh and nibble all night long, until you head home, exhausted, and fall into bed. You’re a little stuffed from those last four rumaki, three spinach balls and the frosted sugar cookie you washed down with a tumbler of egg nog, but you’re pretty happy, nonetheless. You lie there in bed and think: “My goodness, I have THREE more of those to go to before I even head home for the holidays to Mom’s cooking.”

And then you go to work the next day, and four people have brought cookies. And fudge. And chocolate-dipped pretzels. You start wondering if you should ask Santa for some new pants. Bigger ones. With the elastic waistband. Or maybe just chuck it all and order a muumuu.

Holiday weight gain, or even just the buttery, sugar-spangled specter of it, is something that plagues many of us this time of year. The reality, however, is not to the levels we might think. Though media stories and surveys of the guilt-ridden masses seem to suggest we each gain somewhere between five and 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and the New Year, the truth, based on studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine and researched at the University of Oklahoma, is apparently more like one or two. But, before you rejoice and reach for a handful of rum balls, here’s the bad news: We are, apparently, horrible at losing that pound or two of holiday weight, and much of our midlife weight gain might be explained BY our overindulgences at the holiday table.

So, what’s a holiday reveler to do? Just say no? Swear off happiness? Try to be festive while munching on carrot sticks? What are you, a reindeer? Well, thankfully, at least a partial answer may be nestled snugly in your cranium next to the dreams of sugar plums: Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have found that just thinking (a LOT) about gorging on your favorite foods may actually help you avoid overindulging in them.

The trick lies in what psychologists call habituation. Though previously only observed in the context of actual eating, habituation asserts that repeated, bite after bite exposure to a particular food decreases our desire to eat more, and does so independently of physiological signals like our stomach getting fuller. It’s a mental reduction in motivation engendered by an overabundance of the item in question. The new research, done by Carey Morewedge, Young Eun Huh and Joachim Vosgerau and published in Science, indicates that habituation may also be achievable solely through fantasy and imagination. It’s a finding that completely flies in the face of the old diet theory that one should suppress thoughts of trigger foods in order to avoid succumbing to cravings.

To test the theory, the research team gathered 51 undergraduate students (presumably with voracious appetites). They split the group into two, and asked half to imagine eating 30 M&Ms and putting three quarters into a laundry machine. The other half imagined eating three M&Ms and plunking 30 quarters. Then they were all set loose on a real bowl of delicious, chocolatey M&Ms and told to eat their fill. The ones who had already imagined eating more candy ate an average of two grams less (2.2 g vs. 4.2 g) than the ones who had imagined inserting more quarters. The researchers followed that experiment up with another featuring cheese. Once again, the people who imagined eating 30 cheese cubes ate less of the real thing, but if people in the cheese experiment still imagined eating 30 M&Ms and no cheese, they actually ultimately ate the same amount of cheese as the group who’d imagined eating three M&Ms, suggesting the mental habituation effect is food-specific. In other words, thinking of M&Ms didn’t reduce consumption of cheese, and thinking of cheese didn’t reduce consumption of M&Ms. On follow-up questionnaires, the subjects didn’t report the imagination exercises lessening their affinity for a particular food, but a final experiment where they played a computer game to earn cheese cubes showed it might reduce the effort they’d go to in order to get the particular food.

So, holiday food revelers, rejoice! It appears you have a new tool in your toolbox to prevent the Santa-like spreading of your waistline. Before you head for that buffet table and fill your plate, spend a few minutes imagining yourself gorging on that cheese you can’t pronounce, gulping down glass after glass of egg-nog and putting an embarrassing dent in a plate of cookies, and you might just eat less.

What do you think? What other tricks have you used to avoid packing on the pounds over the holidays? I’ve found a big glass of water before eating anything helps fill me up, and brushing my teeth can put a halt to snacking pretty quick. What else works for you?


  1. Thought for food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption. Carey K. Morewedge, Young Eun Huh and Joachim Vosgerau. Science Magazine. December 10, 2010.
  2. To Eat Less, Imagine Eating More. Greg Miller. ScienceNOW. December 9, 2010.
  3. Think yourself thinner with the fantasy diet. Richard Alleyne. The Telegraph. December 9, 2010.
  4. Yanovski, J., Yanovski, S., Sovik, K., Nguyen, T., O’Neil, P., & Sebring, N. (2000). A Prospective Study of Holiday Weight Gain New England Journal of Medicine, 342 (12), 861-867 DOI: 10.1056/NEJM200003233421206
  5. Roberts SB, & Mayer J (2000). Holiday weight gain: fact or fiction? Nutrition reviews, 58 (12), 378-9 PMID: 11206847
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Caroline Sober

Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.

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