Next time you want to curb your appetite, all it might take is flipping through photos of food.
New research claims images of food, if viewed often enough, can help satisfy our cravings and diminish our desire to eat.
The research, conducted at Aarhus University in Denmark, examined the different ways our perceptions of food affect our cravings.
The results may be shocking to snack-makers and food manufacturers, who invest heavily in ads that are supposed to stimulate our hunger.
"Your appetite is more closely linked with your cognitive perception than most of us think," lead author Tjark Andersen said in a statement. "How we think about our food is very important."
The study, published in the journal Appetite, determined we can get feel full by looking at pictures of food by examining the number of repetitions needed and whether variation in the images removes the sense of satiety.
"We know from previous studies that images of different types of food don't have the same effect on satiety. That's why you can really feel full after the main course but still have room for dessert. Sweet things are a completely different type of food," Andersen said.
In one experiment, people were exposed to a photo of orange M&M's candies either three times or 30 times.
Participants who saw the image 30 times had less desire to eat M&M's than those who saw only three images of the candies. People who saw 30 images also said they would choose a smaller portion of M&M's than the group that saw just three images.
"They had to answer how many M&M's between 1 and 10 they wanted. The group which had seen 30 images of orange chocolate buttons, chose a smaller amount than the other two groups," Andersen said.
Afterwards, they repeated the experiment -- this time with M&M's in different colors. The study shows the colors did not change the result.
Finally, they replaced the M&M's with Skittles. Unlike M&M's, Skittles taste different depending on the color.
"If color didn't play a role, it must be the imagined taste. But we found no major effect here either," Andersen said. "This suggests that more parameters than just color and flavor have to change before we can make a effect on satiety."
It may sound strange that people feel full without actually eating anything. But this is really quite natural, Andersen explained, as how we think about food has a large influence on our appetite. The findings demonstrate so-called grounded cognition theory. For example, if you imagine putting your teeth in a juicy apple, the same areas of the brain are stimulated as if you actually take a bite of an apple.
"You will receive a physiological response to something you have only thought about. That's why we can feel fully satisfied without eating anything," Andersen said.
With obesity one of the biggest health challenges facing society today, researchers suggest the study results can be applied as a method to control appetite.
"Think if you developed an app based on a Google search. Let's say you wanted pizza. You open the app. Choose pizza – and it shows a lot of photos of pizza while you imagine eating it. In this way, you could get a sense of satiety and maybe just stop wanting pizza," Andersen said.
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