Many people focus on eating well and exercising regularly in an effort to live more healthfully, but few consider the impact that one’s mindset has on well-being. The new field of psychoneuroimmunology, which studies the effects that thoughts and feelings have on things like health and resistance to disease, highlights these connections.
This article explores the many ways mindset can impact your well-being and offers practical suggestions for changing your thoughts to improve your health.
Mindset and Nutrition
You’ve heard it before: You are what you eat. This statement suggests that if you consume a balanced and nutritious diet you’ll fare well, and, conversely, if you eat a diet of highly processed snack foods, you won’t. However, more recent research suggests you’re not what you eat, you’re what you think you eat.
Researchers at the Stanford Mind and Body Lab conducted a study in which they served participants two milkshakes. One shake, they told participants, was a 140-calorie “light and sensible shake.” The other shake was described as a 620-calorie “indulgent” shake. Researchers measured the participants’ self-reported level of satiety and intravenous blood levels of ghrelin, which is a hormone that promotes hunger when levels are high and drops as you become satiated. The catch? Both shakes contained exactly the same number of calories (380, to be exact). Despite this, when participants drank the “indulgent” shake, they reported higher satiety levels and their blood grehlin levels produced a dramatically steeper decline than when they drank the “sensible” shake. Conversely, when participants believed they were drinking the “sensible” shake, their blood grehlin levels stayed relatively the same. The authors concluded that an individual’s beliefs about what he or she is eating may dramatically change the body’s physiological response to it (Crum et al., 2011).
This phenomenon is also apparent in a study on vegetable labeling and consumption. After looking at previous research revealing that healthy foods are considered less tasty, filling and satisfying, researchers wanted to see if more vegetables would be consumed if they were given more decadent names. They compared the amount of vegetables consumed when given one of four names: normal, healthy restrictive, healthy positive or indulgent. Diners chose indulgently labeled vegetables (with names like “sweet sizzlin’ green beans”) more often than vegetables labeled as normal, healthy positive or healthy restrictive. Healthy-restrictive vegetables (with labels such as “light n’ low carb green beans and shallots”) were consumed the least (Turnwald et al., 2017), revealing that our appraisal of a food changes its desirability and how much of it we consume.
Another study assessed people with different feelings about chocolate cake, guilt or celebration, and compared perceived eating control and long-term weight maintenance between the two. Participants who associated chocolate cake with guilt did not have healthier eating intentions than those without guilt, but reported lower feelings of self-control around food and were less likely to maintain weight over the following 18 months (Kuijer and Boyce, 2016).
Finally, a literature review on mindfulness and healthy eating found a positive relationship between the two, suggesting that individuals who eat more mindfully report less impulsive eating and reduced caloric consumption (Jordan et al., 2014).
The results of these studies suggest that mindset matters in the types and amount of foods you choose to consume and in your body’s physiological response to it. What can you do with this information? Change the way you approach your food. Consider the foods you choose, be they veggies, milkshakes or chocolate cake, as delicious and stress less about their caloric content. Pay attention to the sensations of eating them. You’ll be more satisfied and eat healthier when you do.
Mindset and Movement
Like nutrition, exercise is impacted by our thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Much research and national rhetoric promotes exercise as a means to reduce one’s risk of disease and instead live a longer, healthier life. To that end, one study looked into whether your beliefs about how much you exercise impact longevity. They found that those who perceived themselves as less active were 71% more likely to die in the 21-year follow-up period than their peers, even after they adjusted for the actual amount of physical activity each person performed (Zahrt and Crum, 2017).
Researchers wanted to see if altering this perception would result in changes in health. They assessed a group of hotel maids’ perceived physical activity, which was low, and then explained to them that their workplace activities involved a large amount of physical activity every day. After four weeks, the maids reported higher physical activity levels (though their activity was the same) and had a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio and body mass index (Crum and Langer, 2007). This all happened without any changes to their exercise routine, only to their beliefs about it.
These studies suggest that those who perceive themselves to be inactive or not active enough will have worse health outcomes over time, regardless of their actual activity levels. Thankfully, the reverse also appears true. Count all of your steps, your chores and your daily activities as exercise and you may reap better health outcomes over time.
In an era of increased food and exercise concerns, where the diet du jour constantly changes and many struggle to obtain a sufficient amount of exercise, these studies offer a helpful proposition: By changing your mindset to become less critical, more inclusive and more positive, you may have the power to improve your health.
Crum, A.J. et al. (2011). Mind over milkshakes: Mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response. Health Psychology, 30, 4, 424-429.
Crum, A.J. and Langer, E.J. (2007). Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science, 18, 2, 165-171.
Crum, A.J., Salovey, P. and Achor, S. (2013). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104, 4, 716–733.
Gatchel, R.J. (2005). Clinical Essentials of Pain Management. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Jordan, C.H. et al. (2014). Mindful eating: Trait and state mindfulness predict healthier eating behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 68, 107-111.
Kuijer, R.G. and Boyce, J.A. (2014). Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss. Appetite, 74, 48–54.
Turnwald, B.P., Boles, D.Z. and Crum, A.J. (2017). Association between indulgent descriptions and vegetable consumption: Twisted carrots and dynamite beets. JAMA Internal Medicine, 177, 8, 1216–1218.
Zahrt, O.H. and Crum, A.J. (2017). Perceived physical activity and mortality: Evidence from three nationally representative U.S. samples. Health Psychology, 36, 11, 1017–1025.