The Imagination Diet: Why It Wouldn't Work For Me

"Perhaps my instincts are particularly Pavlovian, but the more I think about a certain food, the hungrier I get."


[Image: Robyn Lee]

After reading the piece about "imagination diets" in New York Times yesterday, I couldn't help but disagree. Columnist John Tierney says:

"When people imagined themselves eating M & M's or pieces of cheese, they became less likely to gorge themselves on the real thing. This form of mental dieting -- I think, therefore I'm full -- sounds bizarrely counterintuitive, because we're all familiar with the opposite phenomenon: thoughts of food that make us more eager to eat it.

Indeed, there's a well-established phenomenon called sensitization, or sometimes the whetting effect: if you picture yourself eating chocolate, your desire for it increases, and such thoughts can cause you to literally salivate.

...But eventually that effect is counterbalanced by another well-established phenomenon called habituation. Just as you adjust to bright lights and stop being bothered by bad smells, you get habituated to a food as you eat it."

Habituation is a funny thing. Most bad effects do tend to fade away, like the banging of old radiators or those dirty socks that become wearable again if neglected for so long. But with food? I suppose there are different habituation levels per person per food.

One person's easy half a pizza down the hatch is another's one-slice-satiation. I have seen two separate sophisticated friends consume half a block of cheddar, and a tin of cookies, respectively, both declining to eat anything else at the time. I could tell you that I can put away an entire plate of my grandmother's brick-like noodle kugel, if you would refrain from judging. But certain things are only palatable in single doses. Tuna melts, for example. Finish one and it's rare that you crave another. I can only stand about half a bagel's worth of lox before the sea's tide starts pulling me under.

Then, there's the opposite of habituation.

A snack will begin tasting fine, and the taste scale gradually crescendos as you eat more and more of it. You know what I'm talking about—this doesn't just apply to those addictive personalities out there. Fluffy, crunchy, or light, usually salty but never too rich; these foods are easy to start and difficult to stop. We're talking potato chips, fries, popcorn, and my own Achilles heel: Nature Valley granola.

Yeah, sure, I'll become habituated to those salt and vinegar kettle chips. For five minutes. Then, like Guy Pierce in Memento, I want to take my opportunity to introduce myself again to that chip bowl.

Cheese puffs are a different story. This is a radically flavored food, where your beginning taste is a bit of a shock, like jumping into cold water. The first one coats the tongue in a rash of orange powder that consistently reminds me of sour vomit. But quickly, however, the shock fades and you become habituated to those odd little things. Even their slightly alarming color fades as it integrates itself into the tips of your fingers. In this case, habituation allows you to consume more food, not less.

To get back to the point, I think this imagination diet sounds dangerous. I write about food, and I spend most of my time feeling hungry no matter what I have just eaten. Perhaps my instincts are particularly Pavlovian, but the more I think about a certain food, the hungrier I get. Remember at the end of SuperSize Me when they show the credits and Morgan Spurlock says something like, "If you're hungry after watching this, you're sick"? All I wanted at that moment was a McDonald's Happy Meal.

I don't believe this imagination diet would work for me.

Ah, time to go. Outside my window there are construction workers in orange hats, and I'm going to go find me some Cheetos.