Potential New Diet Trick: False Memories

Strawberry ice cream: a delicious, but fattening, treat. (Image credit: AP Photo / Carolyn Kaster)

The best way to lay off that desert may be to pretend it makes you sick.

Researchers have found that when adults are given "false memories" of getting sick from eating strawberry ice cream as a child, they may choose not to eat it as an adult.

"We believe this new finding may have significant implications for dieting," said study author Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine. "While we know food preferences developed in childhood continue into adulthood, this work suggests that the mere belief one had a negative experience could be sufficient to influence food choices as an adult."

This research appears this week in the online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Food preference questionnaires were given to 204 students, who in return received computer-generated analyses about their food history. Some of the students received false feedback indicating that strawberry ice cream had made then sick as a child.

After receiving the false analyses, the students suddenly "remembered" having gotten sick from strawberry ice cream when they were little and planned to avoid the desert in the future.

False memories, it turns out, can be easily absorbed by our brains. A 2004 study shows that things that are vividly imagined can make their way into our memories.

Another recent study suggests that stress and pressure can make people remember things that never happened.

The idea of creating false aversions to foods or drinks to keep people away from them is not new. Alcoholics can take medicine that makes them physically ill if they drink alcohol, the idea being to discourage drinking.

"It may be possible to do something similar with food, but without the physical experience," Loftus said.

Future studies will look at whether the false memories have lasting effects and whether people will actually avoid the food when it is put in front of them.

Bjorn Carey is the science information officer at Stanford University. He has written and edited for various news outlets, including Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries, Space.com and Popular Science. When it comes to reporting on and explaining wacky science and weird news, Bjorn is your guy. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his beautiful son and wife.