Can Thoughts Be Fattening?

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We’ve all heard the classic story that says the body stores fat when we take in more calories – that is, more units of food energy – than we use. And this is true – as far as it goes. Think of it as a simplified version of a much richer, more complex, even epic tale: our metabolic process. In fact, there is much more to the story than the “calories in, calories out” formula.

The body’s decision to store some of the calories we consume as fat has a lot to do with the way we think about food. From dreams of doughnuts to fantasies of fudge, our thoughts about the foods we crave can have a dramatic impact on our digestion. Curious? Join Emily Rosen, Director of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, as she explores the psychology of insulin in this eye-opening new video from #IPEtv!

Here is a transcript of this week’s video:

Hi, I’m Emily Rosen, Chief Operating Officer for the Institute for the Psychology of Eating.

Today’s Topic: Can Thoughts Be Fattening?

Have you ever heard someone say, “Just thinking about food makes me gain weight?”

Sounds like a crazy and unscientific thought, doesn’t it?

Well, amazingly enough, this may well be true. Scientists have described an interesting component of digestive metabolism called the cephalic phase insulin response. Insulin is a hormone we produce to help metabolize carbohydrates or sugars in our meal. When you eat foods such as pasta, bread, muffins, cookies, cake, cereal, crackers, juice, or candy, you produce insulin quite readily. Insulin also has another interesting function. In excess amounts it signals the body to store fat, to NOT lose weight, and to inhibit muscle growth.

The cephalic phase insulin response is a measurable phenomenon where the body produces insulin when you simply look at a piece of cake or fantasize about a bowl of pasta. The digestion of a carbohydrate food literally begins in the mind. It’s the body’s way of getting a head start on digesting your meal before the food even passes your lips.

There’s an exquisite connection between the head brain – our central nervous system – and the brain in the belly – which is called the enteric nervous system.

The brain in the belly is a separate yet interconnected nervous system that enervates the esophagus, stomach, small intestines, large intestines, pancreas, gallbladder and more. It has approximately as many neurons as does the spinal cord – over 100 million.

In other words, there’s a lot of intelligence in our gut, and it loves to gather all kinds of information from what were thinking, feeling, believing, seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting.

Now, back to the cephalic phase insulin response:

Think about the typical dieter who denies herself nourishing or satisfying food, who might be quite low in calories, and is simply hungry. Chances are, she just starts to fantasize about food.

Has ever happened to you – where you start to imagine all the forbidden foods that you want to eat? Well, for the person who’s constantly fantasizing about pasta or cookies or cake or ice cream or any sugary or carbohydrate food – they’ll be in a continuous cephalic phase insulin response, and thus producing insulin, even though there are no carbohydrates or sugar for that insulin to act upon.

This means that insulin levels will be artificially high and the insulin will be sitting around with nothing to do. By default, this chemical will then perform its secondary function, which is to store fat and inhibit muscle growth. Add to this the stress of dieting and denying oneself food and satisfaction, and our dieter will also produce more cortisol – yet another fat-storage hormone.

So by constantly fantasizing about carbohydrate-rich foods and leading a stressful life, our dieter will have the exact pieces in place for chronically elevated insulin and cortisol – the precursors for “non-caloric” weight gain.

The point is not to stop fantasizing about waffles and ice cream. The point is to eat it, get over it, be aware that you are eating it, get the satisfaction your brain is requiring, and move on to the next life experience. If you get what you want, you won’t need to be constantly thinking about what you don’t have. It’s that simple.

And if these are foods that you truly need to keep out of your diet – then make sure as best you can that the meals you’re eating are satisfying ones.

For many people, satisfaction is a radical concept.

We’ve been conditioned to believe that to lose weight we need to deny ourselves food, deny ourselves pleasure, and wage a war against our appetite with all the firepower we can muster. But by fighting the biology of the body, we create the very condition we so sincerely struggle to avoid. Checking in when we eat as opposed to checking out ignites metabolism and fulfills the body’s inborn need to dine.

Does this mean that every time you fantasize about food that you’re going to put on weight? Probably not. Please don’t cause yourself extra worry. It’s all about finding a place where you can eat in a nourishing and pleasurable way and not need to be in a constant fantasy about food.

It’s simply about spending less time in our head, and more time where some of the best action really is – the body. Thanks so much for your time and interest.

Please email us at if you have specific questions and we will be sure to get back to you. In the comments below, please let us know your thoughts. We love hearing from you and we read and respond to every comment!

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