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updated 12/9/2010 7:16:17 PM ET 2010-12-10T00:16:17

One way to avoid gorging on your favorite junk food may be to picture yourself eating it, one delicious bite at a time, according to a new study.

Though it may sound counterintuitive, the study showed those who imagined themselves eating chocolate, bite after bite, ate less of the sweet treat when given the opportunity to actually chow down than did those who pictured themselves engaged in some other repetitive task, the researchers said.

The findings go against the previously held assumption that daydreaming about something desirable — such as food or cigarettes — increases cravings and will boost consumption.

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The researchers said such imaginary dinning may be the basis for future inventions to help people reduce food or drug cravings.

"If you want to curb your consumption, or at least try to exert self-control — especially over the consumption of desirable or probably even addictive substances — this will be a way to help you exert self-control," said study researcher Joachim Vosgerau, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

The study is published in the Dec. 10 issue of the journal Science.

Imagination vs. experience
Our imagination and actual experience might seem like two very different things, but in the brain, they are surprisingly similar, Vosgerau said. Thinking about something and experiencing it basically activate the same areas of the brain, he said.

Researchers also know that the desire for a certain food gradually wanes as people eat it (as if the last bite of that pizza is somehow less tasty than the first), a process known as habituation.

But can people become habituated to food without actually eating it?

At first, Vosgerau said, he thought the idea "was totally crazy." After all, previous research has shown that thinking about food can increase the craving for it. But those studies had asked participants to imagine the desired food only once — not repeatedly, and not as if they were eating it.

The power of the mind
Vosgerau and his colleagues asked 51 participants to picture performing 33 repetitive tasks. Some participants imagined inserting 33 quarters into a laundry machine. Others imagined inserting three quarters into a laundry machine and eating 30 M&Ms, one at a time. A final group pictured inserting 30 quarters and eating three M&Ms. When all the subjects were presented with a bowl of M&Ms after the thought experiment, those that pictured eating 30 M&Ms actually consumed fewer chocolate morsels than those in the other two groups.

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"I was totally stunned," Vosgerau said of the results.

The decline only happened when the participants imaged eating the M&Ms. If they instead pictured placing M&Ms in a bowl, the opposite effect was seen. Participants who thought about placing 30 M&Ms in a bowl ate more of them than those who pictured placing three M&Ms in a bowl.

And musing about eating chocolate did not prompt a decline in eating a different food, such as cheese.

Vosgerau said he has applied the technique to his own life, using it to help him quit smoking. However, he noted that he is only one case, and future studies will needed to see if mental imagery could help overcome drug addictions.

Pass it on:Before your next holiday gathering, imagine savoring some of your favorite treats. You might eat less when you get there.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @Rachael_MHND. 

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