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.



Alphabet Soup: D

I’m feeling the urge to explore the next letter in my alphabet series looking at the words and concepts that help me stay on the healthier path. I wonder if it might have something to do with this:

d made of candy

What can I say, it was marked down to $1.00 a box in the clearance aisle. :)

But that’s okay. I’ve got a couple of ‘D’ words to help me keep my focus.

Discipline: Such a negative word if you think of it in terms of punishment or penance (I’ve tortured myself enough over the years, thank you very much), but when I think of discipline as a code of behavior, it becomes a power word. My behavior is a debt of honor I owe myself, not a tool with which to whip myself into shape. With that in mind, discipline is important as a daily action, but far more important as a means of returning to center when I’ve strayed away from it.

Determination: For many years, I believed my stubbornness to be a negative trait, but I realized early on in this adventure that it could be one of my most powerful assets. Making a big change of any sort requires a single-mindedness and unwavering resolution to see it through.

Delicious: I could have called this one ‘diet’, but I’m long past over that word. There’s an old joke that if the food tastes good, it can’t be good for you, so spit it out. Ha-ha, right? Well, for many years, I tried to lose weight by eating foods I didn’t enjoy. No wonder I couldn’t/wouldn’t stick with it. I know I’m not the only one who got caught up in that mindset, because I’ve read and heard other people say things along similar lines. All of us are/were wrong. Eating should be a joyful experience, not just a exercise in consuming minimal calories or points. Everything we eat should be delicious. Or, if you’re a marginal cook like me, an attempt at delicious. :)

Vitamin D I don’t want to overlook this powerful ally! A daily dose of sunshine–even as little as 10 minutes per day in summer–can protect against many diseases as well as help combat depression and insomnia. (I don’t know about you, but when I have insomnia, I often end up in the kitchen with my fingers in the almond jar!)

Those are the ‘D’ words that helped me in the past and continue to keep me on track. Now it’s your turn to amaze me with your insights.



Alphabet Soup: C

CTippy-toeing along in my alphabet soup series, exploring helpful words and concepts for making a lasting life change. (I can call it a series, because I’m all the way up to the letter C. More than two makes it a series in my world. :) )

The letter ‘C’ is huge for me, not so much in the number of focus words but in the power of the words themselves:

Commitment · Control · Consistency · Choice

You see what I mean. Potent, energizing words and concepts that can change a life.

Needless to say, we all have our own approaches, and I had to re-frame some of my own thoughts on these words to find the right track:

Commitment - I had to learn to make a commitment I was sure I could keep. In days past, I would commit to lose X pounds in Y months by taking Z actions every single day without fail. Obviously I couldn’t keep that commitment. The commitment I could keep was to treat myself better by eating healthier and exercising regularly, knowing and accepting that I wouldn’t do it perfectly.

Control – I used to think I had to eradicate all desserts and snacks from my life in order to lose weight and maintain it. I saw my both my love of the sweet stuffs and my impulsivity as negative traits that needed to be overcome in order to be successful. I was wrong. These are not flaws, just part of who I am. Instead of expending a lot of energy trying to defeat them, I only needed to learn to control them a bit better. Life is so much more fun this way.

Choice – One of the biggest factors in learning to exercise greater control was fully accepting that almost every action I take is a choice. This is especially true with respect to what I eat. Even when I can’t choose the food itself (dinner parties, restaurant meals, etc.), I can choose how much of it to eat. I also choose the actions that follow. Maybe I exercise a little more the next day or forgo a few “extras” for the rest of the week. Or maybe I just accept it and move on normally. Whatever I do, it’s my choice.

Consistency – Again with the accepting imperfection, but I really don’t think the point can be overstated. We don’t have to do everything perfectly to be successful. We just have to do the right things consistently.

Each of these words is powerful enough on its own, but when bundled together, they’re a solid platform on which to build momentum and success. I’m all tingly just thinking about them.

Your turn. Any of these words strike a chord with you? Any words that start with ‘C’ that fuel your own progress? Please do share!


Thank you all for the well wishes for my mom and for me. Mom is recovering well and has her first post-op doctor’s visit this Thursday. We’re hopeful the drains can be removed then as they’re a big nuisance to tote around. Not that she’s doing a whole lot of movement anyway. :)