Professionals: How to enhance working memory to help your client to eat less

Professionals: How to enhance working memory to help your client to eat less

Photo by creatv-eight for Unsplash

I recently wrote a blog titled “What is working memory and why does it matter for weight loss?” where I explained that we only have limited brain capacity, and we need some of this capacity when we want to change how we eat.

In today’s blog I’m focusing on the role of working memory in satiation, because this is key to helping your client reduce their portion size. I’ll use the example that a lot of people tell me they want to change, which is having a second helping and then regretting it later.  I’ll give you some suggestions of how to help them to stick to just one helping, if that’s what they want to do.

It’s all about what happens at the crunch time of “second helping or not?”

When your client is trying to make the ‘healthier’ rather than the ‘unhealthier’ choice between one food and another or one action and another, they may be torn between what they fancy right now and what they intended to do earlier.

The problem for most of us at these crunch points is that the ‘unhealthier’ choice of keeping eating more than we need is more compelling.

Why? It’s partly because we have lots of memories of eating which have highly pleasurable associations. We’re hard-wired to repeat pleasurable experiences, and these memories will be popping up in our working memory when tempting food is at hand.

What working memory does at the crunch point

As Higgs and Spetter say in their research paper on the cognitive control of eating, the action selected at any decision point is the result of your brain rapidly mapping out many possible outcomes and their expected value. The decision about whether to go for seconds is based on your working memory computing the overall “value” to you of that action, taking into account the expected taste of the food, the delayed impact of eating the food on your health and the social consequences of eating at that moment. All of these considerations interact with your metabolic state, including how full you are.

With so much going on in our brains, much of it out of conscious awareness, let’s look at what research on the psychology of working memory and eating tells us that can help in our work with clients who want to stop eating seconds.

What will help your client to decline seconds?

The key here is your client being able to notice that they have already eaten enough for now. In other words, register that they are satiated. It is important to know that how satiated or full you feel is influenced by

  1. What is happening in your gut – the physical sensations of fullness
  2. What memories you have of the food you have just been eating
  3. What memories you have of what you ate earlier today

Notice that the last two are about memory. This may come as a surprise, but memory is one of the mental mechanisms that contributes to how full we feel.

Different people have different working memory capacity

If you have more working memory capacity, this allows you to mentally process what is happening to you more deeply. Some of us have greater working memory capacity than others, but whatever your capacity is, you won’t be able to process your experience of eating your dinner as deeply if you have something else on your mind, or you’re not paying attention because the TV is on.

Nelson and Redden (2017) found that people using greater working memory capacity tended to satiate faster than those with smaller working memory capacity. Their hypothesis is that deeper processing of an experience creates a sense that you have consumed more. In relation to eating this means that because you feel you have consumed more, you stop eating sooner.

Perception of increased past consumption leads to feeling more satiated

So what does “deeper processing” of a meal actually mean?

You want a richer and more detailed memory of what you’ve eaten to be present when you’re making the “shall I have seconds?” decision. What this means in practice is attending closely to what you’re eating, mouthful by mouthful. This is exactly what mindful eating means.

Nelson and Redden’s study suggests that we can manipulate our working memory capacity to increase our sense of satiety at a meal, by using this greater focus on what we’re eating. This is really encouraging because it means that even if your client’s working memory capacity is limited, by carving out time just to eat, and focusing on each mouthful, they will be deepening the processing of the experience of eating. In turn, this will make it easier to stop and refuse seconds.

Anything that helps us lay down a memory of past eating increases our satiation;

anything that disrupts us laying down the memory reduces satiation (so we eat more)

Remembering what we ate earlier also helps

In a study in 2002 Professor Suzanne Higgs found that people ate less at a subsequent meal when first asked to explicitly recall the vivid details of lunch. One group of people were asked to think about what they had eaten for lunch, and another group were given no guidance about what to think about, for 5 minutes prior to eating. The group that thought about what they’d eaten for lunch then ate less dinner.  She then compared what happened when people were asked to think about “lunch today” compared with “lunch yesterday” and found that the “lunch today” group ate less at dinner than the “lunch yesterday” group.

These results suggest that memory of recent eating influences how much we eat.  And we can use this finding to help clients to reduce their dinner size. The effect may be subtle, but it’s a great way to engage the non-conscious processes involved in eating to help you move in the right direction.

Factors enhancing memory decrease intake while those disrupting the encoding of memories increase subsequent intake


Practical tips for your client

  1. Explain Professor Higgs’ study to your client. You could say, “If you currently eat too much for your evening meal and want to cut down, try spending a few minutes before you start eating your dinner thinking about what you ate for lunch today.  Then sit down to enjoy that lovely dinner.  You may find that you eat less, even without trying to.”
  2. In order to be able to decline seconds at this meal, suggest to your client that they really focus on the tastes and textures as they are eating. Focusing on this mouthful will allow them to get the most pleasure possible from the food, and it will also deepen the memory trace of the food, so that they feel satisfied sooner and don’t need to keep eating. As I said, this is simply ‘mindful eating’ but explaining the link to working memory may help some clients make sense of why this is so valuable.

Further resources for you as a professional

I run regular training workshops for professionals on the psychology of eating habit change and you can find links to upcoming trainings on my website here

To receive my regular free newsletter on all aspects of the psychology of eating and appetite straight into your inbox, sign up here


Higgs, S (2002) Memory for recent eating and its influence on subsequent fod intake. Appetite. 39 : 159-66

Higgs, S and Spetter, M.S. (2018) Cognitive Control of Eating: the role of memory in appetite and weight gain. Current Obesity Reports 7 : 50-59

Nelson, N.M. and Redden, J.P. (2017) Remembering Satiation: The role of working memory in satiation. Journal of Consumer Research, 44: 633-50


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