Several studies have shown that visualising the results that you want can actually help you achieve them. In research at Harvard University, US, housekeeping staff at a hotel were told that their daily work counted as all the exercise they needed to be healthy.
They made no changes to their lifestyle and, after only four weeks, had lost an average of two pounds and lowered their systolic blood pressure by 10 points. It might sound wacky, but is it really any wackier than people feeling physically better after having taken placebo pills that they think will make them feel better?
In another study, Canadian researchers compared two groups – one where participants exercised three times a week and one where they listened to CDs that guided them to imagine they were doing the same workout as the exercisers. The exercisers improved their muscle strength by an impressive 28 per cent, but amazingly the non-exercisers improved theirs by almost the same – 24 per cent.
Janet Thomson, author of Think More, Eat Less (£12.99, Hay House) suggests a visualisation exercise you can try every day. ‘Think about how you will look and feel a month after you have achieved your weight-loss goal — slim and healthy,’ she says.
‘Now, visualise yourself three months later and six months after that. Commit to spending one minute just before you go to sleep each night and one minute when you wake each morning visualising yourself like this.’ Also picture the healthy food choices you will make and the exercise that will help build the new you.
‘Creating powerful positive emotions helps generate faith in your ability to succeed,’ Thomson says.
You can further reinforce this by tracking your progress, on a weekly basis, by writing down whatever it is you’re trying to improve – your weight, your waistline or how long your regular running route takes. After a month you should see real differences.
Clench your Fist
Trying to resist that Dairy Milk? Try clenching your fist or tensing your abs. A report published in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that firming your muscles can help strengthen your willpower which, in turn, increases your ability to overcome food temptation. In one experiment, volunteers who tensed their hand muscles on their way to buy snacks bought less junk food than those who didn’t.
This research is part of a larger area of science, known as embodied cognition. It looks at the way in which our physical and mental behaviours are inextricably linked in a way that is not yet fully understood, but suggests that the way we physically feel can affect our mental perception. For example, in research at Yale University, US, participants holding warm cups of coffee were more likely to judge someone as trustworthy – literally warm to them – than those holding cold cups of coffee.
The same idea is at play here – by steeling yourself physically, you can also steel yourself mentally. ‘Simply engaging in these bodily actions, which often result from an exertion of willpower, can serve as a non-conscious source to recruit willpower and facilitate self-control,’ says Iris Hung, one of the authors of the Yale study. And, if all else fails, at least your abs will look good as you try to turn down that extra pint or glass of wine.
Do exactly as those involved in the study did – when confronted by temptation, or when you’re trying to make a conscious decision to make a healthier choice, clench your fist or consciously tense another muscle group. But make sure you time your move right – researchers found that it only worked when employed at the exact moment of temptation, and not when used beforehand.
It takes the stomach about 20 minutes to register satiety, so bolting a huge pizza in 10 minutes flat usually means you go from being starving to feeling unpleasantly full. But you won’t just feel fuller, you’ll probably have taken on unnecessary calories, and feel less satisfied.
In a study at the University of Rhode Island, US, researchers found that when subjects ate as fast as they could, they consumed, on average, 646kcal in just nine minutes. When presented with the same plate of food and told to put their cutlery down in between bites, they ate an average of 579kcal in 29 minutes.
Plus, an hour after they finished they felt hungrier after bolting their meal than when they had taken their time. By eating more slowly, we engage all our senses, which helps us to enjoy the food more and feel fuller. The Rhode Island researchers also found that eating slowly was associated with a greater consumption of water, which they believe might account, in part, for the diminished calorie consumption.
Do exactly the same as the subjects did in the study. Ensure that you have a large glass of water with each meal, and put down your cutlery in between each bite, or use chopsticks when eating a stir fry, giving yourself time to properly chew your food, rather than just shovelling it in.
Make Conscious and Non-emotional Choices
‘Your mind’s main job is to do what it thinks you want it to do,’ says psychotherapist and hypnotherapist Marisa Peer (marisapeer.com). ‘So if you eat sweets when you’re down and tell yourself that they’re a naughty treat to cheer you up, then next time you are low your mind will fill your head with the idea of sweets, believing that’s what you want to feel better.’
Peer says that rather than programming your mind to think you want something but that you shouldn’t have it, you’re far better off making it clear to yourself – and to your subconscious – that this is an informed decision you have made.
‘If you’re making a decision not to have a piece of cake because you know you’re not really hungry, you just fancy it, try saying out loud, “I have chosen not to eat this because I am not hungry,”’ says Peer. ‘Using words like this immediately informs your subconscious that you are making the right choice and feel good about it. It’s when you say, “I can’t have that, I’m on a diet” that desire actually increases.’
It’s important to vocalise these thoughts because speaking a thought out loud exercises more areas of the brain than simply thinking it, making it a more effective way of communicating with your subconscious. Bonus: talking to yourself ensures you will always get a table to yourself even in the most crowded Starbucks.
Focus on your Food
Studies have found that when you’re distracted by the TV, games or your phone, you eat more. Clinical hypnotherapist, chronobiologist and behavioural therapist Angela McKrill (angelamckrill.com) says that’s because when we’re distracted we rely solely on our stomachs to tell us when we’re full, whereas all our senses should be involved.
‘As hunter-gatherers, we wouldn’t just grab a sandwich and eat it out of the packet, or shovel in pasta with our eyes on a screen. We had to rely on our eyes and our noses to differentiate between the good berries and the poisonous berries.’
McKrill believes that by robbing ourselves of this more engaged way of consuming food, our digestion is not geared up to digest it properly – because it hasn’t been prepped with visual and olfactory (smelling) cues – which means we don’t get the best of the nutrients from it. What’s more, we don’t get the full pleasure that we might from food, meaning we eat more than we should in an effort to feel sated, because our other senses haven’t been satisfied.
To force yourself to concentrate on your food, try switching the hands you usually use for your cutlery. A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that people using their non-dominant hand to eat popcorn ate around 30 per cent less, and were more focused on taste and how hungry/full they were.
Get Snap Happy
US researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that taking photos of your food can be a very effective way of subconsciously encouraging you to make healthy choices.
They asked dieters to keep written and photo diaries of what they ate in a single week. The researchers found that the photo diaries were a far more accurate record of daily calories and a far more powerful disincentive to overeat.
‘Rather than just eating mindlessly, taking a photograph of your plate before you eat helps you actually look at what you’re eating,’ says McKrill. ‘Over time, this sort of approach can help people subconsciously adjust not only how much they’re eating, but also what they’re eating. We’re programmed to want to see a good balance of colour in our meals and simply by improving the aesthetics of our plate – something that’s instinctive – we improve the nutritional content.’ That’s assuming you don’t eat a colourful pizza every night.
‘Before you eat or drink anything, whip out your phone and take a quick snap,’ says McKrill. ‘The very act of seeing your food framed in this way should help you subconsciously adjust what – and how much – you’re eating.’
If you want to make more of an effort, take a moment to look at everything you’ve consumed at the end of each day. Then, at the end of the week, upload all the pictures to your computer. Because your camera will have recorded the time you took each picture, you should be able to see patterns in poor food choices – maybe you’re most likely to grab a chocolate bar from the machine when your energy dips in the afternoon. You can then start to develop strategies to address this, such as ensuring you have some nuts or fruit in your desk drawer.
Hide the Junk
We’ve all hidden chocolate in the back of the cupboard from time to time in a bid to keep it out of sight and out of mind. But don’t dismiss it as cliche: did you know that you’re 70 per cent more likely to eat chocolate if you can actually see it?
Dr Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating (£6.95, Hay House), carried out various experiments leaving chocolates in clear or opaque containers, either on the desks of office workers or on a filing cabinet six feet from their desks. In every instance, the more people could see the chocolates, the more likely they were to eat more of them.
‘We eat more of these visible foods because we think about them more,’ says Wansink. ‘Every time we see the sweet jar, we have to decide whether we want a chocolate or whether we don’t. Every time we see it we have to say no to something that is tasty and tempting.’ Ultimately, the more times you have to say no, the more likely you are to slip and say yes.
Ideally you wouldn’t have any unhealthy food in the house at all. But, if that’s not realistically possible, hide your snacks in an opaque container and put the box in the back of the cupboard, or somewhere equally difficult to get to.
Pick your Plates
You probably think that it’s only the food on your plate that counts, but the plate matters, too. Several studies have shown that the crockery you use can make a huge difference to how you perceive the taste of food, and how much of it you eat.
US researchers from Cornell University served an identical brownie to three different groups of people: one group had it served on a china plate, the second on a paper plate and the third on a napkin. The better the presentation, the better people thought the brownie tasted.
The size of the plate is also important, as another Cornell study demonstrated. When a fixed portion of food was presented on a large plate, diners felt they had been given a smaller-than-average portion, so ate more. The same portion served on a smaller dish appeared more substantial, so they ate less.
Similarly, a study published in the British Medical Journal discovered that people poured 20-30 per cent more alcohol into short, wide glasses than they did when they used taller, thinner ones.
Finally, further Cornell research has shown that you’re likely to eat less if the food on your plate is a different colour from the plate, and if the tablecloth matches the plate. Probably best to write that all down before you head to John Lewis’s homeware department.
If you’re trying to eat healthier foods that don’t necessarily appeal, make the effort to serve them nicely on good crockery. Bin the huge trendy platters and serve up your dinner on a side plate instead. So, to sum up, serve your pre-dinner G&T in a highball, pick a white tablecloth, serve your spaghetti bolognese on a small white plate and a salad on a large green plate. OK? Tuck in...