If you're trying to lose weight because you think it will improve your appearance, you might think that looking in the mirror would motivate you to keep your diet goals on track. But any stimuli (including photos of other people's bodies) that make you think about your appearance may actually lead you to eat more – regardless of your appetite, according to new research conducted in Netherlands and recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
In the two-part study, researchers served 107 people either a high- or low-calorie milkshake. Half the participants drank in front of a face mirror. (The goal was to make them think about their appearances.) Afterward, researchers gave each of the participants a bowl of M&Ms while they watched videos with no mirror in sight.
People who'd previously drank the high-calorie milkshakes in front of a mirror ate more M&Ms than people who'd drank low-calorie milkshakes – even though they should have been, at least in theory, more satisfied at the get-go. High-calorie milkshake drinkers who'd drank in front of mirrors also ate more M&Ms than those who'd drank the exact same beverage without a mirror.
In the second part, 30 participants ate lunch before arriving and 29 arrived on an empty stomach. Researchers showed some people in each group an ad featuring thin and beautiful models, and others the same ads without models. Then, they provided crackers and instructed everyone to help themselves.
The hungry people snacked regardless of whether they'd seen the ads – no surprise here. But among people who'd already eaten lunch, people who looked at ads featuring models ate about 46 percent more crackers than those who looked at ads without models – even though they'd just eaten a meal.
The researchers think they know why: Whether you're looking in the mirror, at a model, or even photos of your friends on Facebook or Instagram – you're thinking about outward appearances, and that can be deeply distracting. This can muddle the messages your stomach sends to your brain to signify you're full, and make it especially hard to resist food, regardless of your appetite.
"It seems that a focus on appearance is more detrimental to sensing physiological cues than general distraction [i.e., looking at an ad without a model]," says lead author Evelien van de Veer. She predicts the effects would be even more pronounced (aka disastrous) for dieters, who may pay more attention to appearances in the first place.
While results could vary if variables like self-esteem were measured, or if researchers were to, say, throw a full-length mirror into the mix, it's easy to set yourself up for success the next time you eat: Just nix distractions like TV, magazines, and food courts full of ads that feature other humans. Then focus on the way your food makes you feel — which is what you should be doing every time you eat, anyway.
This article was originally published on cosmopolitan.com