The mind is an incredibly powerful organ. Many of us are familiar with the concept of the “placebo effect” and the idea that we “only use 10% of our brain.” A story on NPR from April 14, 2014 contributes to the evidence of the power of the brain. “Mind Over Milkshake: How Your Thoughts Fool Your Stomach” by Alix Spiegel details a study demonstrating that the mindset we have when consuming food can change the way our bodies actually digest food.
According to Alia Crum, a clinical psychologist who does research at the Columbia Business School in New York, “labels are not just labels; they evoke a set of beliefs.”
Crum had dedicated years as a student to studying the placebo effect — “how a sugar pill can physically alter a body if the person taking the pill believes it will.” Years later, Crum found herself wondering if the information contained on labels could affect the mind in a similarly powerful way. Could the labels we read have such a huge impact on our minds that it affects the way that we digest food?
She decided to investigate whether the information that we read on a label “could physically change what happens to you — ‘whether these labels get under the skin literally,’ she says, ‘and actually affect the body’s physiological processing of the nutrients that are consumed.”
Crum devised an experiment to test this hypothesis. A large batch of French vanilla milkshakes was produced that was then divided into two batches. These batches were labeled completely differently. Half of the milkshakes were labeled as a low-calorie drink called Sensishake. The labels on these bottles read that Sensishake had zero percent fat, zero added sugar and only 140 calories. The other half of the batch was labeled Indulgence. Indulgence was advertised to be an incredibly rich treat. “According to the label, Indulgence had all kinds of things that wouldn’t benefit your upper thighs — including enough sugar and fat to account for 620 calories. In truth, the shakes had 300 calories each.”
The participants of the study had their ghrelin levels measured both before and after they drank their shakes. “Ghrelin is a hormone secreted in the gut. People in the medical profession call it the hunger hormone. When ghrelin levels in the stomach rise, that signals the brain that it’s time to seek out food. ‘It also slows metabolism,’ Crum says, ‘just in case you might not find food.”
When ghrelin levels rise, and you respond by having a big meal, your ghrelin levels then drop back down, which signals the mind to “rev up the metabolism” and begin digesting. But, if you respond to increased levels of ghrelin by only have a small salad, your ghrelin levels do not decrease substantially, and thus, your metabolism doesn’t react in the same way.
“For a long time scientists thought ghrelin levels fluctuated in response to nutrients that the ghrelin met in the stomach. So put in a big meal, ghrelin responds one way; put in a small snack and it responds another way.” But according to Crum’s findings, this is not always the case.
Participants who believed they were drinking the Indulgence shakes showed that their bodies responded as if they were eating three times as much food as the participants who believed they were consuming the Sensishake. This was demonstrated by ghrelin levels dropping three times more in participants who consumed the Indulgence shake as opposed to those who thought they were only consuming 140 calories in the Sensishake.
According to Crum, “Our beliefs matter in virtually every domain, in everything we do. How much is a mystery, but I don’t think we’ve given enough credit to the role of our beliefs in determining our physiology, our reality. We have this very simple metabolic science: calories in, calories out. People don’t want to think that our beliefs have influence, too, but they do!”
So what does this mean for us? Well, we know how much of an impact our mindset can have on us, not just mentally, but physically as well. Learning to understand why our brain reacts the way it does to certain scenarios can help us learn how to control our physical and mental reactions. Having an adaptive mindset is crucial to everything that we do, and learning to harness behavioral control and a positive mindset is a state that is highly attainable, all you need is understanding and practice.
Listen to the featured NPR story “Mind Over Milkshake: How Your Thoughts Fool Your Stomach” here.
To learn more about how and why our brains operate the way they do, visit our Adaptive Mindset Research Library.