A new study published in Appetite explores the potential for visualization techniques to help reduce poor food choices among those who wish to eat less. The findings indicate that those who imagine high-calorie foods and then imagine getting rid of the food by pushing it or throwing it away report reduced cravings for fatty foods. The study provides support for this kind of behavioral technique.
There are many potential health consequences of obesity, including diabetes, high blood, chronic kidney, and heart disease. Obesity can also make individuals more vulnerable to mental illness, especially anxiety and depression. Worldwide, obesity is a public health concern. Common treatments for obesity include medication or surgery; behavioral treatments are a valuable option as they are very low-risk.
Imaginal retraining (IR) is a behavioral treatment that first attempts to trigger a negative mood, then asks the individual to imagine their favorite high-calorie food, and then imagine throwing it away while pantomiming the physical action of getting rid of it. Another technique is known as the 3P for pull, pause, and push. When engaging in the 3P technique, individuals will imagine and do the action of taking a bite of the food, pause, and then imagine and pantomime the action of throwing the food away.
In this study, Steffen Moritz and colleagues hypothesized that the 3P method would be more effective at changing eating habits than the IR method. The 1,016 participants were recruited from an online platform and included in the study if they reported hoping to reduce their strong cravings for high-calorie foods.
Participants were randomly placed in one of five conditions. All conditions were shown the same photos of different high-fat, high-calorie foods. Condition 1 was the control, and participants were asked to look at the photo. Condition 2 participants were asked to look at the photo and then close their eyes and imagine zooming out from the photo. In condition 3, participants engaged in imaginal retraining without the pantomime movement, and those in condition 4 engaged in IR with the pantomime movement. Finally, condition 5 participants were asked to engage in the 3P technique.
Next, all participants looked again at food pictures and rated their level of craving for what was pictured. Contrary to what the research team expected, the results revealed that those in condition 4 experienced the most significant reduction in cravings. This group imagined and pantomimed getting rid of the high-calorie food. The next most effective technique was zooming out (condition 2), followed by the 3P technique (condition 5).
The study’s findings support the effectiveness of imaginal retraining combined with a motor component and the 3P technique (pull-pause-push). However, imaginal retraining without a motor component, which had shown promise in an earlier study, yielded less reliable results in this study. The zooming-out technique had some impact on reducing cravings but did not affect participants’ evaluation of food pictures.
Compared to a previous study on individuals with problematic alcohol use, the 3P technique resulted in a smaller reduction in immediate cravings for high-calorie food. However, it showed positive effects on participants’ evaluation of food pictures. One possible explanation is that eating high-calorie food involves a less dominant “pull” element compared to drinking alcohol or smoking, which is a crucial feature of the 3P technique. When drinking, lifting the hand to the mouth is often necessary, while smoking allows the cigarette to be moved away from the mouth during inhalation.
The research team acknowledges some limitations to the study. First, they did not assess the participants for obesity, only if they desired to stop craving high-calorie foods, and these findings may not hold true in a sample of only obese individuals. Second, the study measured craving reduction immediately after the visualization technique, and there is no way to know if there was lasting change.
Despite these limitations, Moritz and the team conclude that imaginal retraining may be a promising treatment for obesity and recommend further studies to understand better the technique and how to utilize it in the therapeutic setting.
“Imaginal retraining, and to a lesser degree 3P, seem to represent viable behavioral strategies to resist immediate strong craving for high-calorie food and may thus represent a promising element in approaches to reduce craving,” the researchers wrote.
The study, “Imaginal retraining reduces craving for high-calorie food,” was authored by Steffen Moritz, Anja S. Goritz, Simone Kühn, Jürgen Gallinat, and Josefine Gehlenborg.