Anyone who has ever struggled with weight loss and weight management would know that it’s more complicated than simply consuming fewer calories than you expend.
Recently I discovered a research study that demonstrated we feel fuller if we think we have consumed something more filling. I wasn’t surprised.
The study, conducted by Alia Crum, clinical psychologist at the Columbia Business School, sought to investigate the effects that food labels have on what we think about what we’re eating. “Labels are not just labels; they evoke a set of beliefs,” she says.
Dr. Crum was interested in the placebo effect, the extent to which our bodies respond to what we believe to be true.
She developed an experiment where she made a big batch of milkshake and for one group labeled it as Sensishake—fat free, guilt free—104 calories. The other group received Indulgence—decadence you deserve—620 calories. In fact both milkshakes were 300 calories.
Ghrelin, the stomache hormone that signals hunger, was measured before and after milkshake consumption.
What she discovered was that our bodies were significantly affected by these labels; ghrelin levels dropped three times as much in the Indulgence group when compared to the Sensishake group.
“I don’t think we’ve given enough credit to the role of our beliefs in determining our physiology, our reality,” Dr. Crum said.
The study reminded me of a study I wrote about in my science journalism course in 2007 which demonstrated that the placebo effect is even applicable to weight loss.
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer is also a researcher of the placebo effect and she wanted to evaluate how our perception of how active we are effects how our bodies actually look.
She developed an experiment where she surveyed the perceived level of exercise in hotel maids, an occupation that is very physically active. Interestingly, she discovered that 67% of the respondents rated themselves as having no exercise.
She then she assessed them physically, measuring the maids’ body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, blood pressure, weight and body mass index. The researchers discovered the physical indicators matched the maids’ perceived amount of exercise rather than their actual amount of exercise, and so Langer decided to alter their perceptions.
Splitting the 84 maids into two groups, researchers explained to the maids in the experimental condition how many calories they burned in each task they did (making the bed, vacuuming, etc.). They were explicitly told that their daily activities already met the surgeon general’s definition of an active lifestyle. The control group was not given any information.
When the research team returned to take physical measurements of the maids a month later, they discovered that in the group that had been educated there was a decrease in their blood pressure, weight, and waist-to-hip ratio.
Post-surveys were able to eliminate change in behavior as factor, because the maids that reported no change in habits still experienced significant changes in their bodies.
Just like the milkshake experiment, the study concluded that mindset matters and that further research is required for us to fully understand the depths of the effects of our beliefs on our bodies.
The implication of both these experiments are the same: the “objective reality” of our body’s metabolic processes are not as straightforward as we may have assumed once upon a time.
Hence, you are as healthy as you believe you are, which is precisely why chocolate will always remain on my list of healthy foods. 😉
I don’t think we’ve given enough credit to the role of our beliefs in determining our physiology, our reality.