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Supersize your imagination, shrink your snacks

Have you ever heard of the meal-recall effect? Did you know that, in England, a biscuit is really a cookie? Did you also know that the magazine Bon Appétit is not the same as the peer-reviewed journal Appetite? We do … now.



The meal-recall effect is the subsequent reduction in snacking that comes from remembering a recent meal. It was used to great effect in a recent study conducted at the University of Cambridge, which is in England, where they feed their experimental humans cookies but, for some reason, call them biscuits.

For the first part of the study, the participants were invited to dine at Che Laboratory, where they “were given a microwave ready meal of rice and sauce and a cup of water,” according to a statement from the university. As our Uncle Ernie would say, “Gourmet all the way.”

The test subjects were instructed not to eat anything for 3 hours and “then invited back to the lab to perform imagination tasks.” Those who did come back were randomly divided into five different groups, each with a different task:

  • Imagine moving their recent lunch at the lab around a plate.
  • Recall eating their recent lunch in detail.
  • Imagine that the lunch was twice as big and filling as it really was.
  • Look at a photograph of spaghetti hoops in tomato sauce and write a description of it before imagining moving the food around a plate.
  • Look at a photo of paper clips and rubber bands and imagine moving them around.

Now, at last, we get to the biscuits/cookies, which were the subject of a taste test that “was simply a rouse for covertly assessing snacking,” the investigators explained. As part of that test, participants were told they could eat as many biscuits as they wanted.

When the tables were cleared and the leftovers examined, the group that imagined spaghetti hoops had eaten the most biscuits (75.9 g), followed by the group that imagined paper clips (75.5 g), the moving-their-lunch-around-the-plate group (72.0 g), and the group that relived eating their lunch (70.0 g).

In a victory for the meal-recall effect, the people who imagined their meal being twice as big ate the fewest biscuits (51.1 g). “Your mind can be more powerful than your stomach in dictating how much you eat,” lead author Joanna Szypula, PhD, said in the university statement.

Oh! One more thing. The study appeared in Appetite, which is a peer-reviewed journal, not in Bon Appétit, which is not a peer-reviewed journal. Thanks to the fine folks at both publications for pointing that out to us.


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