On the Menu: Ghrelin Milkshakes and Placebos for All

I’ve known for a while now that my attitude is one of the biggest influences in my successes. My failures, too, but let’s keep this on the positive side. My point is that what I think affects how I feel and that affects how I act. It’s all very psychological. Or is it?

Monday’s Morning Edition reported on a study that suggests that there could be an actual physiological component in all this.

Specifically, Alia Crum‘s research focused on how nutrition labels affected the body’s processing of those foods. Her theory: “Labels are not just labels; they evoke a set of beliefs.” And she wondered how those beliefs affected the body.

Chocolate Milkshake at Bob's Big BoySo she did what any good researcher would do and made a bunch of milkshakes which she then poured them into bottles. Half were labeled as sensible (low calorie, no sugar, no fat) and the others were labeled as decadent (over 600 calories!), even though all were the same 300-calorie shake.

To monitor the effects of the shakes, Crum’s helpers measured the ghrelin levels of (lucky) study participants both before and after they drank the milkshakes. Ghrelin, in case you’re wondering, is the so-called “hunger hormone” that sends the brain those pesky I want cupcakes! messages from time to time. (Your ghrelin might send a different message; mine is all about the cupcakes.)

As it turned out, ghrelin levels dropped significantly more in those people who thought they were drinking a high-calorie, decadent shake than those who thought they were drinking lower calorie shakes. What each group thought affected how their bodies reacted. The high-cal group believed they were getting more and their bodies responded accordingly. The low-cal group’s bodies said, “We want more!” (Take that, diet food industry!)

Keep this in mind when you consider another of Crum’s research projects: Mindset Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect(with Ellen Langer), which I first read about in Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (an amazing book on its own, to which I have craftily attached my Amazon affiliate link. )

In this study, a group of hotel maids who believed they didn’t get enough exercise (say what!) were split into two groups. One group was given examples that indicated the work they did met the Surgeon General’s recommendations for daily exercise. The other group wasn’t given this information. They got to be The Control Group. Big whoop.

Checking in after a month or so, the researchers found that even though those in the informed group hadn’t changed their behaviors, they showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index compared to the control group. Apparently they weren’t doing their work differently; they were perceiving it differently, and that created physical change.

I’m no scientist (obviously), but I think Alia Crum and her co-workers are on the right track. This mindset thing is all I can think of that would explain how I could transition in a matter of days from eating a Snickers bar as an afternoon snack to eating a Snickers bite and being satisfied. I had convinced myself that a tiny bit of indulgence was enough, and so it was enough.

It also explains how my posture straightened and my chin lifted a little higher after I started exercising regularly. I was just walking on the treadmill (fairly slowly) and doing a simple yoga routine, which no doubt provided some physical benefits on their own, but the more far-reaching effect at the time was how I felt about my actions for having done them.

Even today, after 5+ years in maintenance, I see as much benefit from what I’m thinking as from what I’m doing. When I keep my mind focused on the right things, I do the right things. Or more of them anyway. I’m still me, after all. :)

Does this make sense to anyone but me? Or did I lose you at the milkshake? I’d love to know your thoughts and experiences on all of this.

11 thoughts on “On the Menu: Ghrelin Milkshakes and Placebos for All

  1. I think that the power of the mind is very strong! I do think we can trick ourselves into certain things for sure.
    Very interesting about the housekeepers and the changes in their bodies just from learning a bit of information!

  2. That is such an interesting study. I also thought you had a good point about going from eating a Snickers bar to being satisfied with a bite. I remember when I first got to goal I had been often going to the vending machine and getting a Snickers bar. Once I started working on losing weight I bought those little cubes that are teeny, tiny and savoring every bite. And, it was enough. I think you are right. It was enough because I told myself it was enough.

  3. What an incredibly awesome and interesting post! Thank you so much for writing it. I truly believe in mind over matter, we have so much untapped power between our ears!

  4. My “running life” has taught me that it is most definitely mind over matter. Anyone who has done any distance running can tell you that at some point, your body is going to hurt and your left brain will start telling you to quit. People use different techniques to get past this because if they don’t, they do quit.

    This was excellent! Why I don’t apply that in other areas of my life, I don’t know. But this most definitely was a good reminder to my mind.

  5. Verrry interesting. But I am no where near being able to eat just a bite of Snickers. It’s appalling how many things I simply cannot have in the house. But, IF the healthier choices I eat are yummy, I am satisfied/happy without the other stuff. So perhaps my ghrelin says yummy = satisfied no matter what the food is?

  6. Interesting! and yes – mind over matter. I’ve experienced this in my weight loss. If a week goes by and I haven’t lost weight, I’ll eat more (and sabatoge my efforts), but those weeks I’ve lost (even a little), I’m more apt to keep up healthy eating habits throughout the week.

  7. This is so interesting! I have to admit a little skepticism at the meaning of the research (I’ve read a lot of stuff recently about how research is mis-represented.) That said, for myself I have found this to be very true. Lately I have been working on this very thing, and right now I find myself in a very good mindset (subject to change without notice…)

  8. First, I just have to say that I love the title of your blog :) I am totally going at this process slowly, but surely. This post is really interesting as well. I have been reading a lot about how our mind works, and how it impacts our body. I really believe that it does. It is funny how if I tell myself I can’t have sweets or they are off limits, I crave them uncontrollably. No amount is enough. When I say I can have a small thing-exactly the item I want-then it is enough!


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