Using Mental Imagery to Eat Healthier

A current Canadian research study has evaluated the role of “if–then” types of plans (also called implementation intentions such as “If I encounter situation X, then I will perform behavior Y”) and the process of mental imagery to reach a specified goal. In the present study, the goal was to consume a larger quantity of fruits. Students were encouraged to eat more fruit by combining a set goal, visual imaging, to achieve the set goal and then actually buying and eating more fruit.  It was observed that those who had proper implementation intentions and executed mental imagery had better goal attainment.

Even with the best positive attitude and intentions, people fail to achieve a set goal. Several studies have tried to correlate the role of proper planning to achieve set goals. Simply having an action plan concentrates only on the end result. Implementation intentions (“if-then” ideas) differ from regular planning in that these plans clearly mention how a person should behave if they encounter a particular situation during the course of implementation of a plan. Mental imagery acts as a rehearsal which the person performs in his or her mind, before actually implementing the plan and its solution. In this study, researchers examined the effect of combining both these aspects for optimum goal achievement.

* This study had 177 volunteer students staying in a student hostel.   Each student was sent an e-mail in which they were requested to provide details of their fruit intake over the last seven days. Students completed a questionnaire before the study and after.
* Students were then divided into four groups. The first group was not given any plans for increasing their fruit intake (control condition). The second group was asked to write down three “if–then” plans for achieving maximum fruit consumption (Implementation Intension condition). The third group was asked to carry out mental imagery techniques to increase their fruit consumption (Goal Intention Mental Imagery condition). Students of the fourth group were asked to both write three “if–then” plans and practice mental imagery of these same plans.
* On the seventh day the amount of fruits consumed by all students over the last seven days was assessed.

* The baseline data revealed that each student consumed approximately 2.64 portions of fruit per day. (One portion of fruit is equal to one apple, one banana, one glass of juice or a half cup of grapes.)
* Participants in the fourth group consumed the highest quantity of fruit.
* The participants in the control condition (first group) ate less fruit at follow-up than the participants in the Implementation Intension (second group) and Goal Intention Mental Imagery Conditions (third group) study groups.

It was observed in the study that many participants found it difficult to follow mental imagery instructions. That implies that there could be individual differences in the ability to imagine and carry out the imagery techniques. The fruit consumption by students should have been measured on a daily basis. Recalling a week’s detail of fruit consumption may not provide accurate data. The follow-up time of only one week was too short. Further studies, with longer follow-up durations, may be required to know long term effects of implementation intention and mental imagery.

Overall, the present findings in this study suggest that it may be beneficial to use targeted mental imagery when forming implementation intentions. The study also showed that participants who were already eating more fruit increased their intake by using implementation intentions with targeted mental imagery. This could have been because these participants used outcome imagery where they imagined the eventual taste of the fruit. This would definitely help in increasing goal achievement by bridging the gap between the plan and efforts.  This study showed that it was necessary to combine implementation intention and mental imagery to achieve set goals.

For More Information:
Fruitful Plans: Adding Targeted Mental Imagery to Implementation Intentions Increases Fruit Consumption
Publication Journal: Psychology and Health, February 2011
By Barbel Knäuper; Amanda McCollam; McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

*FYI Living Lab Reports Are Summaries of the Original Research.