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Psyched! Healthy Eating is All in Your Head

Dieting and healthy eating can be a mine field of magical thinking. It seems that if we really have a desire to make a poor eating choice, we can rely on the trickery of our mind to allow us to do so guilt-free. A recent study from Northwestern University brought to light some new information about how our mind can tell us what we want to hear about what we eat.

In the study, weight-conscious people perceived that adding a healthy option to an indulgent meal lessened the total calorie count. For example, a celery stick paired with a cheeseburger was perceived as having a lower calorie count than the cheeseburger alone. They also underestimated caloric intake after viewing more caloric foods: after viewing a cheesecake, for example, participants estimated a cheeseburger as having fewer calories than they did if they had just viewed a salad.

The author of the study believes these results aren’t just an isolated mind-meld, but indicative of the country’s larger obesity epidemic. Misleading food imagery can backfire in many unhealthy ways, and believing that eating healthy foods along with unhealthy ones decreases calorie count can dangerously interfere with meeting weight loss goals. According to the Lempert Report, which reports on trends in consumer marketing, these sorts of misperceptions can be used for good or for evil. Food marketers can rely on this kind of research to sell us more fattening food, or, alternatively, to help us make better, more balanced decisions while shopping.

How to win the battle of wits when it comes to eating? Step one: be active in your own intellectual machinations. To get a “head” start, we’re providing are a few of the most common games to be aware of that go on north of our neck and succeed in psyching out the smartest among us  — and some that can help us fight back.

Eating Trickery, Courtesy of…Your Brain.

* Portion size. All-you-can-eat buffets are hip to this mind trick: providing slightly shrunken plates means less food is required to look like a lot. Big plates mean big portions. If you’re programmed to see a bounty of food as the only bona fide meal (aren’t we all), think about down-sizing your crockery to eliminate the white space, and increase the size of the one that holds your greens instead.

* Hidden ingredients. Having salad? Great! Dousing it with fatty dressings and adding globs of tuna salad? Not so great. A tablespoon of mayo adds 100 calories, and a cubic inch of feta adds 45. Fit Sugar has their top 10 list of hidden calories that can turn blissful ignorance into mind-game central.

* Snacks. Grabbing half of your kid’s pop tart while he’s going out the door? Mindlessly noshing on chips while you answer email? More of a mind-numbness than mind game, calories can find their way in your mouth unconsciously. Since duct tape across your mouth is unfashionable, writing down everything you eat can help – it makes you conscious of your eating, and gives you pause before the nosh. If you do snack, you at least have a record of what’s going in the pie hole so you don’t have to live in mystery.

* Drinks. You think you’re not eating because you’re not chewing. But that sprinkle-festooned holiday coffee comes in at 700-calories. Not a morning person? Maybe it’s cocktail hour that’s playing games with your diet.  Health Castle lets the light shine in on drink calories that can have you thinking that you’re on track with your food when actually you’re getting derailed by your glass.

* Denial. Eating too much salt? Not following fruit and veggie guidelines? Look to that famed Egyptian river. Americans have been accused of being in denial when it comes to taking control of their poor eating habits. All the government regulations in the world won’t help us snap out of diet denial unless we nix the food coma and start thinking about what we put in our mouth as being as potent as the medicine we take.

Eating Mind Games That Can Help You Turn the Mental Table

* The kitchen is closed. If after hours snacks get you, set a rule that says the kitchen is closed after 8 PM, and anything crunchy, bagged, salty or sweet is on lockdown.

* Hypnotize yourself. When it’s dark out, telling yourself you’re *yawn* just too tired to eat can work, as can that powerful mind game of figuring that you can indulge in the morning if you stand firm tonight.

* Wait thirty minutes. A popular mind game for preventing eating when you may not be hungry, the half-hour wait can get you through a hard-hitting craving. Knowing that if it’s a serious hunger pang, you can let yourself indulge is part of the incentive.

* Brush your teeth. No one wants to ruin a freshly flossed mouth. Feeling like snacking? Brush instead, and tell your dentist your great smile is just genetics.

* Drink water. You’ve heard it before – a desire for food may just be thirst. A glass will fill you up temporarily, but it’s not just mental gymnastics – winter is an ideal time to increase your hydration and beat dryness, so give yourself 8 ounces of H2O for mind and body before you indulge. 

* Photo of you in skinny jeans. The photo-on-the-fridge is a mind game classic because it taps into your motivation. Does it work? Some swear by it. Part affirmation and part reminder, the skinny photo, wallet card, or picture of your kids (even a photo of you at your worst that you don’t want to return to) can provide the mental poke that snaps you back to reality and reminds you of why you’re eating healthy in the first place. 

* A positive attitude. Eating well is not a prison sentence. It’s an opportunity to try new foods, eat real, wholesome ingredients, and feel strong and healthy. A positive attitude is a win-win situation that can turn mental manipulation from demoralizing to empowering.

Watch the Lempert Report’s video which includes details about the food imagery study.  

Some call it magic. View John Lennon’s Mind Games video for inspiration courtesy of Youtube. 

Got one? Share one! What’s your favorite mind game when it comes to maintaining a healthy diet? Let us know.

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