Just thinking about whether or not your food is healthy could make you eat less and lose weight, according to a study.
Researchers have discovered that people eat less food – so fewer calories – when they think about how their meal will affect their body.
People choose smaller portion sizes if they are encouraged to focus on what nutritional value a meal has, instead of thinking about how good it will taste.
The scientists say obese people’s brains think more about how tasty food is so effectively get excited and they end up dishing up more and overeating.
However, the study found people of any weight naturally choose smaller portions of food when they think rationally about what different food does to their body.
For example, ignoring the fact that pizza tastes good and instead focusing on how fatty it is could make someone eat less of it.
The researchers say encouraging people to think differently about food could help them lose weight, and marketing healthy food as ‘tasty’ could be counterproductive because it could make people eat more.
People eat smaller portions when they are thinking about how healthy the food is instead of how good it tastes
Research by the University of Tübingen in Germany shows the way people think about their food influences how much they eat in one sitting.
People thinking about how much pleasure they will get from the meal or how filling it will be end up eating more.
Whereas those thinking about the effect the food will have on their health choose to eat less.
And the researchers found obese people’s brains react differently when they eat – they instinctively choose more food than normal weight people, but they also chose to eat less when actively thinking about their health.
In the study obese people appeared to react more intensely to the taste of food but were slower to feel full.
A ‘health-focused mindset’ could boost the brain’s self-control
‘Daily food intake is highly dependent on the portion sizes we select,’ said Stephanie Kullmann, the project’s lead investigator.
WHAT IS THE GLOBAL OBESITY CRISIS?
Almost a quarter of the world’s population will be obese in less than 30 years, according to research published in May.
If obesity trends continue, 22 per cent of people around the world will be severely overweight by 2045, up from 14 per cent last year, a study found.
One in eight people, rather than today’s one in 11, are also expected to develop type 2 diabetes, the research adds.
Lead author Dr Alan Moses, from the Denmark-based pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, said: ‘These numbers underline the staggering challenge the world will face in the future in terms of numbers of people who are obese, or have type 2 diabetes, or both.
‘As well as the medical challenges these people will face, the costs to countries’ health systems will be enormous.’
People with type 2 diabetes have an average life expectancy of just 55 due to them being at a much higher risk of heart attacks, stroke and kidney disease.
Tam Fry, a health campaigner from the National Obesity Forum said the findings were ‘desperately sad’.
‘The rise in obesity since the 1950s has directly paralleled increasing portion sizes. We are finding that switching an individual’s mindset during pre-meal planning has the potential to improve portion control.’
Using brain scans, researchers found adopting a ‘health-focused mindset’ can trigger activity in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain which is linked to self-control and future meal planning.
Thought processes could be a weight management strategy
Dr Kullmann added: ‘This influence of pre-meal mindset on food choices may contribute to the vicious cycle we observe in obesity.
‘Focusing on food for pleasure leads to bigger servings and increased brain responses to food reward, whilst the sensation of fullness is perceived as less satisfying.’
The researchers say their findings should be used as a weight management strategy because everyone in the study ate less when they were told to think about health.
And advertising healthy food as ‘tasty’ might give out the wrong message because if people focus on the taste instead of nutritional value they are likely to eat more.
How the research was carried out
Study participants ranged from normal weight to obese and, while they choosing their portion size for lunch, were told to think about either the health effects of food, expected pleasure, or staying full until dinner time.
They were all also observed choosing a portion with no instructions on their mindset, to test the results.
Participants in all weight categories selected smaller portions when prompted to think about health.
Those who adopted the fullness mindset took larger portions and, in the pleasure mindset, obese participants chose larger portions than normal-weight people.
The results were presented this week at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior.