Is Pavlov messing with your progress?

Guest post by Milda Simonaitis

The drool response makes you hungry

The drool response

Photo: Ripka CC-By-2.0

You’re probably familiar with the weight loss tip of putting food away as soon as you’re done with a meal, or staying out of the kitchen, as a means of avoiding unnecessary snacking. The idea is that if you don’t see it, you won’t want it, and this reasoning is based on the way in which your body responds to food. But do you know what that response is?

Consider what happens when you encounter an exceptionally palatable food item. For purposes of argument, let’s say it’s your favorite brand of chocolate chip cookie, for which you have a number of sensory memories: you remember its sweetness, richness, texture, smell, the way it dissolves in your mouth. These sensations are quite vivid and strongly anchored in pleasure.

Since those cookies are a favorite of yours, you’ve had enough experience with them to have a salivation response well established. That’s pure classical (Pavlovian) conditioning, just like in Psych 101: stimulus (sight of a cookie) elicits a response (drool). All that would make the cookie tough to resist as it is, but there’s something else going on that increases the complexity of the situation.

gollum_ringSalivation is the first step in the digestive process. Saliva contains an enzyme, amylase, which breaks down dietary starches into sugar, so in essence, you’re digesting food before it even leaves your mouth. The cues that trigger salivation also stimulate gastric secretions in your stomach in anticipation of the arrival of food. Your stomach awakens, your brain gets excited and starts hissing, “We WANTSSSS it…we must HAVESSSSSS it.” And all of a sudden, this flurry of activity sends a signal that you’re “hungry”.

So consider: You’re sated after a meal, but something as simple as the sight of a desirable food elicits psychological and physiological responses that pique your appetite again. The advertising industry makes liberal use of these reactions. Look closely at how food ads are designed. Check out the words used to describe menu choices at a restaurant: “luscious”, “rich and creamy”, “mouth-watering”, “decadent.” Those are loaded terms that we’ve learned to associate with sensory pleasures. It’s not surprising that some restaurants have a separate dessert menu – complete with photographs — that’s presented after you’re done with your meal. The visual reminder serves as a booster for your appetite, and a quite effective one at that.

The take-home message is that if you’re fighting a snack habit, having food out in sight can make it extremely difficult to resist munching out, even more so if you’re interpreting the gastric response as true hunger. Put the food away and leave the environment (kitchen, restaurant), and it’s likely this “hunger” will diminish, making it easier to overcome the temptation. “Out of sight, out of mind” holds true here!

About Milda Simonaitis

Milda Simonaitis is an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, as well as having a B.A. in Psychology/Psychobiology from Yale University, and an M.A. in General Experimental Psychology from San Diego State University. You can read more from Milda on her blog, ULTRAnatomy, and follower her on Twitter @Dewyleaf.

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3 Responses to “Is Pavlov messing with your progress?”

  1. Good article and funny how it is the second one in a row that features canines. Maybe your finding a new niche?

  2. [...] | Tags: appetite, Behavior, experiment, Nutrition, perception | Leave a Comment  In a guest post for the PhitZone, I wrote about your body’s reactions to the sight of food, and how those responses may awaken [...]

  3. Todd says:

    It is pretty funny, huh? We didn’t even realize that we had the two dog stories back to back until this one posted. I guess that’s what I get for having a que of articles.

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