Can Looking at Food Photos Ruin Your Dinner?

How many advertisements do you see each day?  If you could count them all (billboards, television commercials, sidebar advertisements on your Facebook feed), it would add up to almost 5,000!  An increasing proportion of these ads are for food, where companies try to increase brand awareness (who doesn’t know the McDonald’s jingle?) and purchase intentions (a full meal for three bucks is quite the deal!).  Some of the most successfully food ads invite us to imagine the sensory experience for ourselves (Mmm, Mmm, Good!).  This “yum response” may increase our desire to purchase and eat the food being shown, but it may also have an important and unintended consequence.  As a matter of fact, a new study suggests that repeated stimuli like these food advertisements make the subsequent consumption of that food a lot less enjoyable.

Satiation, or the decrease in enjoyment with repeated consumption, occurs in many aspects of life.  The fifth bite of pie, the fourth boss fight in a video game, the third day of a tropical vacation – all of these were much less enjoyable than the first.  But what if all you had to do was imagine these things (instead of actually consume them) in order to become satiated?

Previous studies have supported this notion of satiation from imagined consumption.  One study found that people who repeatedly imagine eating a food, such as cheese, ate less of the imagined food compared to people who did not imagine eating that food.  So, if simply imagining eating a food causes us to eat less of it, does repeatedly seeing photos of food have the same satiation effect?

To answer this question of the food-photo phenomenon, researchers from BYU recruited 232 people to look at and rate pictures of food based on how appetizing that food appeared.  In their experiment, half the participants viewed photos of sweet food, while the other half saw photos of salty food.  Then the participants were asked to eat peanuts and evaluate how much they enjoyed eating them.  Interestingly, those who saw photos of salty food found eating peanuts much less enjoyable, even though they never actually saw a picture of a peanut!  It seems that these people were satiated on the specific sensory experience of saltiness.

So, if you want to enjoy your Thanksgiving meal tomorrow, avoid looking at too many pictures of those types of food!  On the other hand, if you have a weakness for certain unhealthy foods like pumpkin pie and want to prevent yourself from eating too much of it, go ahead and look at thousands of pictures of that food!

Can Looking at Food Photos Ruin Your Dinner? by Knowing Neurons

Can Looking at Food Photos Ruin Your Dinner? by Knowing Neurons



Larson J.S., Redden J.P. & Elder R.S. (2013). Satiation from sensory simulation: Evaluating foods decreases enjoyment of similar foods, Journal of Consumer Psychology, DOI:10.1016/j.jcps.2013.09.001

Morewedge C.K., Huh Y.E. & Vosgerau J. (2010). Thought for Food: Imagined Consumption Reduces Actual Consumption, Science, 330 (6010) 1530-1533. DOI: 

Story L. (2007). Anywhere the eye can see, it’s likely to see an ad. New York Times, Retrieved from

Kate Fehlhaber

Kate graduated from Scripps College in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Neuroscience, completing the cellular and molecular track with honors. As an undergraduate, she studied long-term plasticity in models of Parkinson’s disease in a neurobiology lab at University of California, Los Angeles. She continued this research as lab manager before entering the University of Southern California Neuroscience graduate program in 2011 and then transferring to UCLA in 2013. She completed her PhD in 2017, where her research focused on understanding the communication between neurons in the eye. Kate founded Knowing Neurons in 2011, and her passion for creative science communication has continued to grow.

One thought on “Can Looking at Food Photos Ruin Your Dinner?

  • February 26, 2014 at 4:38 am

    this is good Information, Hope we will read many other good things from you in future also. Regards

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