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Imaginary Cheese Cubes Could Help You Lose Weight

A new study showing the benefits of imaginary eating could help explain why few food writers are fat.

The research, published in this month's Science and reviewed on the front page of today's New York Times' science section, suggests the more you think about a certain food, the less inclined you become to eat too much of it.

According to the study, people can tire of a food simply by imagining themselves eating it. The phenomenon - for which the fancy scientific name is "habituation" - is highly specific: In experiments with M&M's and cheese, researchers found people had to engage in lots of mental eating to achieve something approximating fullness. Subjects who imagined eating only a few cheese cubes, or imagined depositing M&M's in a bowl were just as likely to overindulge as eaters who didn't devote any brain waves to conjured snacks. Subjects who mentally gorged on M&M's didn't eat any fewer cheese cubes, and vice versa.

So maybe it's a stretch to suggest a day spent pondering foie gras and caviar helps food writers keep off the pounds. But the general health of food writers is so striking that it's worth exploring as an explanation.

I annually attend a convention of the Association of Food Journalists, as well as a number of other industry events. Since food writers are paid to eat for a living, it would be understandable if we spent our meetings making sure we weren't flirting with the weight limit on hotel elevators and figuring out to squeeze into conference room chairs.

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But the vast majority of food writers I've met aren't obese. That's partly because most food writers exercise obsessively -- at meetings, we're as likely to congregate in the gym as the bar -- and don't have much patience for highly-processed foods packed with calories.

Still, I like the theory that food writers also have the advantage of filling up on their fantasies. Lead researcher Carey K. Morewedge, a psychologist at Carnegie-Mellon, was considerably less impressed when I asked her to comment via e-mail.

"It's certainly possible," she allowed. "But that's just speculation."

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