Study: For Hunger, Remembering That You Ate Matters More Than Actually Having Eaten

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People who thought they ate more felt less hungry later.

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PROBLEM: As anyone who's had a Man Men-style lunch followed by a Mad Men-style dinner knows, the connection between our brain and stomach is not simple or logical. 

METHODOLOGY: University of Bristol provided 100 volunteers with lunch, with either a large or small portion of tomato soup as an appetizer. But, as with all free lunches, there was a catch: the bowls had a secret attachment capable of pumping soup in or out without the participants noticing. What they thought they were eating was therefore different from what actually ended up making it into their stomachs. Immediately following the meal, and for the next three hours, they were asked to evaluate their levels of hunger and fullness.

RESULTS: Right after they finished eating, the participants seemed to be in touch with their stomachs: They reported levels of hunger proportional to how much they had eaten. But the brain-stomach line of communication weakened as time went on, and 2 to 3 hours later, memory took over. The participants who thought they'd had a larger portion of soup felt less hungry for another meal. A full 24 hours later, when again confronted with the two portion sizes, the ones who thought they'd had the larger portion believed that it was a sufficient size for them. In other words, they remembered it as being filling, even though it wasn't.

CONCLUSION: Memory plays an important role in our feelings of satiety, separate from the physiologic signals our stomach sends us.

IMPLICATIONS: The only problem with these findings, as with most experiments involving trickery, is how to apply it to real life. Until we can figure out how to make our food secretly disappear from our plates, we're stuck trying to convince ourselves that the rice cakes we had for lunch were actually a big plate of spaghetti.

The full study, "Episodic Memory and Appetite Regulation in Humans," is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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