How to Think Yourself SLIM

image: iStock photo

When I was compiling stories on visualization a few years ago, a woman sent in her use of visualization for losing weight.

She first started imagining pac man type beings eating all the fat cells from the bits she wanted to lose weight from. She was doing it five times a day. She began to lose weight but then was faced with a dilemma. She said, “The first part of the female body to go down during weight loss is the breasts.” She didn’t want that. She’d always been proud in that arena, she relayed.

So she adapted her visualization so that when the pac men were full, instead of just exploding they travelled up the way and deposited the fat onto her breasts. It seemed to work magic.

After 5 months she dropped 21 pounds in weight and gained half a cup size.  She said, “It’s just marvellous.”

And amazingly, she said, she didn’t have any cravings for chocolate and other stuff she was eating so much of.

In a seminar in Sweden that I taught, some of the ladies were laughing heartily through the breakout session. During group feedback on their visualizations, I asked what had been so funny. One of them said they had created the BEST EVER weight loss visualization. Now I was intrigued, as was the rest of the group.

They shared that they imagined themselves as lollypops and Brad Pitt was licking them. And as he did, they got smaller and smaller. I’ll leave that one to your imagination!

In many ways, the brain doesn’t distinguish between real and imagery. If we visualize something happening then the brain can process it in some of the same ways as if it was actually happening.

Of course, you won’t turn into a lollypop, in case you were thinking of trying out that visualization, but the symbolism of the volume of fat getting smaller and smaller and smaller is what the brain might process as real.

I have come across many people who have used visualization as part of their weight loss strategy. Part of the reason it works, I believe, is that the brain is tricked into thinking that the fat is reducing and so it subtly alters our behavior, cravings, motivation, as well as, perhaps, even how the body stores fat and where it is stored.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University might be onto another novel way of using visualization to control weight.

They asked volunteers to imagine eating before they actually ate.

The study involved 51 people who were asked to imagine eating either 3 or 30 units of a particular food. The food in one of their experiments was M&Ms.

One set of volunteers had to imagine eating 3 M&Ms and they also had to imagine putting 30 coins into a laundry machine. Another set of volunteers had to do it the other way around. They imagined eating 30 M&Ms but were to imagine placing only 3 coins into the machine. A third set of volunteers just imagined placing 33 coins into the machine.

The reason for the coins in a machine was because the muscles used are similar to lifting food into your mouth and it was important that the volunteers all imagined the same number of hand movements.

After they did this, they were invited to eat some M&Ms from a bowl in preparation for what they were told was going to be a ‘taste test’. But it wasn’t really a taste test. It was really so that the experimenters could secretly record how many M&Ms they ate.

Incredibly, they found that those who imagined eating the most M&Ms (30) ate much less from the bowl than the other two groups.

The conclusion of the study was that imagining eating the M&Ms suppresses the appetite to eat more of them, just as if we had physically ate them. It kind of makes sense. It’s almost as if the brain thinks, “OK, I’ve had enough now. I’m full,” even though the person hasn’t actually eaten anything at all.

This is known as habituation. As we eat more, after a point our appetite reduces otherwise we’d keep on eating. It’s amazingly that the same thing seems to happen when we just imagine eating.

So if a person actually imagines the full process of eating – i.e., repetitively chewing and swallowing the food – it produces a similar effect in the brain to actually eating the food.

To the brain, the difference between real and imaginary is a thin line. In fact, in the words of Carey Morewedge, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University who led the study, “The difference between imagining and experiencing may be smaller than previously assumed.”

It might be that we can imagine eating a meal, bite for bite, before we eat and then find that we don’t feel like eating as much and therefore weight loss is a natural side-effect. However, the research is still in its infancy and there is no data yet on whether imagining eating affects any of the body’s other systems, like blood sugar, for instance, or even whether it causes us to eat so much less that the body lacks the nutrition it needs.

There’s a lot of as yet unanswered questions so I’d caution against imagining eating a meal before eating without first speaking to your doctor. I think that’s just being sensible. If in doubt, show her or him this article.

But it certainly does show us another powerful use of the mind. It’s certainly something to think about…or imagine.

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  1. Lise Windfeld Bornerup on November 23, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    Hi David,
    What a brilliant idea!
    When we can fake a laughter and get all the “feel good hormons” why shouldn’t we be able to visualize a weight loss. It seems the best solution ever to weight loss.
    Thanks for launching a splendid idea!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 24, 2012 at 11:05 am

      Hi Lise,
      Glad you like it. I have found an increasing number of people using visualization for weight loss to I thought I’d post the article. 🙂

  2. Harshani Curbishley-Brown Cog.Hyp on November 24, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    Hi David,
    Great blog & visualisation stories. As a Cognitive Hypnotherapist, I’m always amazed with my clients at how powerful & yet creative their minds can be.
    What a wonderful gift we’ve been given to have such a mind.
    Best wishes,
    Harshani x

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 26, 2012 at 4:29 pm

      Thanks for your kind words Harshani. You must see some really great results in your own work too, I’d guess. I, too, am always amazing at how powerful and creative people can be. I see it a lot in my workshops when people share their personal stories and others create really incredible visualization strategies for themselves.

      Best wishes,

  3. Karen Auld on November 24, 2012 at 1:43 pm

    When I don’t eat properly, my blood sugar swings like crazy. Many times it sneaks up on me and I know I am about to crash (which equals migraine, vomiting and literally passing out).

    The few times it happened recently, I visualized little people working in my body. An emergency alarm goes off and it is all hands on deck to get all the systems back on-line.

    My systems were most definitely less when I did my visualization.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 26, 2012 at 4:27 pm

      Hi Karen,

      That’s great Karen that you got visualization to work in that way. Thanks for sharing! Hopefully you’ll have inspired some people to believe in their own power a wee bit more.


  4. Kathryn Palfrey on November 24, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    Hi David

    I used your visualisation technique last year to improve my hearing after the ENT specialist told me there was no hope, now I’m going to try it out to shift some pounds. Thanks a ton for another great suggestion.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 26, 2012 at 4:25 pm

      Hi Kathryn,

      That’s great you already used the technique! Good luck with shifting those pounds. 🙂


  5. Polly on November 25, 2012 at 7:18 pm

    If imaging pac man eating away at the fat made the fat disappear, and imagining being a lollipop being licked by Brad Pitt had the same effect, then why didn’t imaging you are eating M&Ms make you put weight on!

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 26, 2012 at 4:23 pm

      Hi Polly,

      I think that perhaps if the people were to imagine eating loads of M&Ms every day then they might well put some weight on. They key with visualization is repetition of the same imagined thing over a span of several days, weeks, or months. The amount they imagined eating in the experiment would have been too small to measure any weight gain effects. This is one of the things that the study didn’t examine and is something that I’m interested in. I’d like to know how a person’s body chemistry would change on account of imagining eating. There would most likely be measurable effects – in blood sugar perhaps, although I would guess that the effects would be less than actually eating.

      The main point of the experiment wasn’t about eating M&Ms. It was really showing that if you imagined eating what you were about to eat then your appetite for what you were about to eat would be lessened and therefore you would most likely eat less. In this way, through eating less a person might lose weight.

      I hope that helps,

  6. L Walker on November 29, 2012 at 11:05 am

    Hi David, I discovered your books through my Mum who used visualisation when she was having a sight-saving operation on her eyes – she defied medical expectations and has made a full recovery, even the surgeon thinks it’s miraculous! I am particularly interested in the weight loss visualisation- not really for weight loss aspect (although after 2 children, my tummy could be smaller!). It is more the increase in breast size that caught my attention. I had a benign lump removed from one of my breasts as a teenager and as a result I’m very lopsided! Obviously, this is not a big problem compared to serious illness and I do try to keep it in perspective but it does bother me and I’m wondering if you think that visualisation could help to increase the breast size? I’ve read a fair bit about people using hypnosis for this purpose, have you come across this at all?
    Thank you for sending out such a positive message, I find your work fascinating and I’m sure it really helped my Mum.

    • David R. Hamilton PhD on November 29, 2012 at 4:22 pm


      That is wonderful that your mum used visualisation and made a full recovery!! 🙂 Other than that particular example, no one has shared a breast enhancing visualization with me, however that doesn’t for a minute mean that people haven’t used it for that purpose. I guess, as a male, it’s not the sort of visualization that women would readily share with me.

      I think you should take heart from the example in the article and use that as a basis for belief in your own ability. I think the mind is capable of much, much more than we give it credit for. I think that when we believe in ourselves when we use our minds, we really are capable of astonishing things.

      I’m also wondering, though, that as it’s not a medical condition, whether making peace with how you are and loving yourself just as you are is not a better strategy for long-term happiness. 🙂

      Best wishes,