To avoid tempting food, talk to yourself in the third person

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The constant temptation of tasty foods high in calories and fat can make it tough to eat healthy. Talking to yourself in the third person may help, a new study shows.

Researchers say a technique known as “distanced self-talk,” which refers to an internal dialogue using one’s name or non-first-person pronouns such as “you, he, or she,” works effectively for making healthier food choices.

“Reflecting on one’s decisions using one’s own name might enhance one’s ability to follow through with their goals, which can often be undermined by strong situational lures (such as tempting foods),” says lead author Celina Furman, a former University of Michigan researcher, now a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota.

Furman and University of Michigan researchers Ethan Kross and Ashley Gearhardt found that psychological distance shifts people’s focus away from the highly arousing features of a stimulus to make self-control easier.

For example, a piece of chocolate cake can look delicious, but a distanced perspective may help you pay attention to abstract features relevant to health goals, such as the cake’s high-calorie content.

In the study, young adults disclosed if they were currently dieting or trying to lose weight. Researchers randomly assigned them to watch a two-minute video of health-related commercials that emphasized eating healthy and exercising (health video) or home improvement commercials (control video).

After watching the video, the participants chose between healthy and unhealthy food items on a computer screen. For each pair of foods, the researchers told participants to use either first-person self-talk (“What do I want?”) or distanced self-talk (“[Name], what do you want?”) in a counterbalanced order.

Among the findings:

  • Dieters who viewed the health video chose fewer unhealthy foods when they used distanced self-talk than when they used first-person self-talk.
  • Distanced self-talk led non-dieters to make healthier food choices regardless of the video viewed.

Since cheap and accessible tasty foods regularly confront us, easy to implement self-control strategies when encountering these food temptations have a better chance of improving dietary choices, says Kross, a professor of psychology.

Making minor changes in eating can make a difference in people’s lives, the researchers say.

“We do know that even reducing caloric intake by a couple hundred calories a day can be important for preventing unhealthy weight gain and promoting weight loss,” says Gearhardt, an associate professor of psychology.

“We need to do additional studies in the future about the impact of distanced self-talk on actual caloric intake, but even small improvements can lead to big public health gains over time.”

Source: University of Michigan