Fake Pills, Real Results: The Placebo Effect On Weight Loss - Healthy Living Association

Fake Pills, Real Results: The Placebo Effect On Weight Loss

Researchers confirmed this mind trick could help with weight loss

Nowadays, scientists know the human brain is a powerful and complex machine. But the latest research on weight loss points at a previously unknown ability: your mind might also be able to change your entire biology… just through the power of belief. From improving chronic conditions to even losing weight, believing might be the key to achieving it! Curious? Here’s what you should know.

The placebo effect and your mind

The reason why your beliefs can have a powerful influence on your body is what researchers call ‘the placebo effect.’

This phenomenon was reported back in the eighteenth century, and since then, it’s been used to test the effectiveness of drugs and new treatments.

The principle is simple: the brain can actually convince the rest of your body that whatever you are taking or doing works. Placebos are a complex phenomenon, but they all share one characteristic: they seem to be a real treatment but aren’t. This means that placebos don’t have an active substance.

Placebos in use

In scientific research, placebos are used to test new drugs. Most clinical trials will test placebos against the actual treatment they’re researching. In general, scientists will split the trial subjects into groups, and one or more of them will receive a placebo substance; the rest will get the treatment. However, all patients will think they got the actual treatment.

Then, researchers compare the results from the placebo group vs. the treated group to figure out the latter’s effectiveness.

When someone has a response to a placebo, this is called the placebo effect. Sometimes, this effect is objective and other times it is subjective. Patients with subjective effects have an improved perception of their condition -they think they feel better-, while people with objective effects have a measurable response -like lower glucose levels-.

How do placebos work?

The existence of objective placebo results means your mind can actually change your body’s physiology. In fact, researchers know several conditions respond positively to placebo administration. These include:

  • Menopause
  • Sleep disorders
  • IBS or irritable bowel syndrome
  • Depression [1]

On the other hand, children seem to have a greater placebo response than adults [2]. This is why young kids will ‘feel better’ once you give them ‘special medicine’ in the form of a couple of sugar cubes. It doesn’t mean that they weren’t in pain before, but it shows how being sure something will work can actually influence the body.

How do placebos work?

Placebos can be especially useful when dealing with hard to deal patients, particularly those that struggle with mental health. These ‘fake’ compounds jumpstart a series of physiological reactions that mimic the ones started by commercial drugs. The length of these changes depends on different variables, such as the specific condition being treated and the patient’s mental state.

In people dealing with chronic pain, depression, and other mental illnesses, the placebo effect seems to have better mid-term effectiveness than for asthma, for example [1].

The effect of your beliefs and attitudes not only changes whether or not placebos work. These factors also modify how efficient actual drugs are. In fact, according to researcher Matthew Burke from Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, patients that believe a treatment will work and feel well-treated by their medical team do better than those treated the same, with a less supportive environment.

Your beliefs are so effective at changing your actual physiological reactions that different experts recommend starting placebo brain stimulation in mental health patients alongside medications and talk therapy [3].

The dark side of placebos

Despite the great strides made in placebo studies in the pain management field, the mind can also worsen your physiological responses. This has been studied in several different projects, but one of the most interesting ones was published in 2008.

This study measured stress levels among American adults. Around 33% of a total of 186 million U.S. adults reported their perceived stress and also considered stress had an impact on their health. This was only what people thought felt like stress; no cortisol levels were measured. Those that reported higher stress levels and perceived health consequences had a higher death risk. In fact, after 8 years, the stressed group that thought stress was harmful had a 43% increased risk of premature death! [2]. In contrast, those that reported high stress levels but didn’t consider this a danger to their health had the lowest premature death risk.

Could your beliefs help with weight loss?

Considering your thoughts and beliefs could impact your risk of mortality and your mental health, it’s not a huge surprise they could also affect your weight. Recent studies found that your beliefs could make workouts more effective, modify your hunger cues and help you lose weight.

In this line, a research team from Yale University found that your mindset had a direct link to ghrelin response. Ghrelin is the hormone that modulates satiation, and researchers found your beliefs could actually alter your hormone levels.

The study consisted of offering a milkshake to all participants. In one instance, they told them the shakes were ‘indulgent’ and packed 620 calories. In another, they told them it was a ‘light’ milkshake with 120 calories. After drinking, researchers measured ghrelin levels 20, 60, and 90 minutes after consumption. Interestingly, the participant’s mindset changed their ghrelin levels drastically: those that thought it was a high-calorie milkshake had a steep decline in ghrelin. This means they felt full and satisfied for longer. In contrast, those that thought it was a low-calorie shake had a relatively flat ghrelin response. Ironically, both milkshakes had the same composition and were 320 calories [4].

As such, your satiety levels have nothing to do with what you actually eat and everything to do with your thoughts.

A similar result came up in a study by a Harvard team [5]. In that article, researchers told a group of housekeepers their daily physical work involved enough effort to lose weight. A second group that served as a control didn’t get this information. The team measured both groups’ behaviors, and the actual effort didn’t change. However, the first group felt they were getting more exercise 4 weeks after the initial talk. At this point, their weight, blood pressure, body fat, and BMI were significantly lower than the second group!

So, what does this mean to you?

While it’s true that moving your body and improving your diet is good, your mindset is just as, if not more important, for your weight loss success. However, this mindset can’t be tricked. You really have to believe that what you’re doing is working… and it will work. It can be a tricky balance juggling staying informed and truly believing in the process.

Final thoughts

Your mind is a powerful tool, and luckily you can use it in your favor! From helping with mental health to losing weight, your beliefs can contribute to achieving your goals. However, the placebo effect also works ‘the other way,’ and a bad attitude can directly affect your help. In general, a positive mindset will make any treatment easier and more effective.


  1. The placebo effect. Available here.
  2. Keller A, et al. Does the perception that stress affects health matter? Health Psychol. 2012;31(5):677-684. Available here.
  3. The Globe and Mail. Placebos could save lives and health care dollars: so why can’t mainstream medicine put them to better use? Available here.
  4. Crum AJ, et al. Mind over milkshakes: mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response. Health Psychol. 2011, 30(4):424-9; discussion 430-1. Available here.
  5. Crum, Alia J., and Ellen J. Langer. 2007. Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science 18, no. 2: 165-171. Available here.

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