Boy, oh boy do we have a fun topic to discuss with you all today. We’re talking about the Placebo Effect. Specifically, how much of a driving force our mind can be when pursuing our fitness & nutrition goals. To keep things fun, we’ll be relating this topic to one of our very favorite movie series (hint hint: it’s in the title of the blog).
As many of you know, we’re mega Harry Potter nerds here at Clar-e-ty. This is why we couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to relate some pretty neat scientific studies surrounding the Placebo Effect to a scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Even though this is a non-muggle application of the power of the Placebo Effect, this example is still immensely applicable.
At this point, you might be wondering "what does the Placebo Effect have to do with me, fitness, nutrition, etc.?"...which we will dive into so stay tuned!
But first, let’s discuss the scene in Harry Potter we’re referring to…
It was the first match of the Quidditch season & this was Ron’s first year as Keeper on the Gryffindor team. He was SUPER nervous & wouldn’t stop saying that he was going to blow the match against Slytherin. However, Harry put his vial of Felix Felicis, or “Liquid Luck,” in Ron's pumpkin juice the morning of the match. Harry made sure Hermione saw what he was doing, knowing she would call him out. “Liquid Luck” is a potion that makes the drinker lucky for a period of time, during which everything they attempt will be successful. Unbeknownst to Ron & Hermione, Harry didn’t actually put the “Liquid Luck” into Ron’s drink BUT Ron, thinking & BELIEVING he would be lucky during the match, played an absolutely flawless game & lead his team to victory. Harry informed Ron after the match was over that he’d, in fact, played well on his own & there was no “Liquid Luck” in his pumpkin juice that morning. Ron in utter disbelief now had the confidence he was a great Quidditch player on his own & did well for the rest of the season.
Now, what can we learn from Ronald Weasley & his experience with “Liquid Luck?”
First, let’s explain what is the Placebo Effect?
The placebo effect occurs when our mind believes a positive outcome occurs resulting from some kind of "beneficial" treatment. This effect is super common in athletes who note some type of enhanced performance after receiving a "placebo," or inactive substance or supplement. However, it’s also common to see the power of the placebo effect, or the power of suggestion take place in the dieting industry as well.
For example, take a diet or protocol someone, maybe a friend or family member, has recommended to you. They tell you about all the amazing results that occurred for them because they did this diet, so you read up on the diet, see a lot of positive feedback online & you give it a whirl. You start noticing you’re feeling better & might even start seeing some results on the dieting protocol your friend/family member recommended to you. However, chances are because you already made up your mind that this diet is going to make you feel better, you are, in turn, feeling better regardless of if the protocol is actually benefiting you in the way someone said it would.
Now, we’re not taking away from this experience if you’ve tried something like this in the past or if a fad diet has worked for you BUT just saying that it might have very limited applicability to others. And this is where we can run into some “grey area” in the nutrition & fitness space. Just because a diet, supplement, or method worked well for someone else, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you or someone else you might know.
Moreover, your BELIEFS about what something does, diet, supplement, etc., might even be more powerful than the supplements, diets, themselves. In Ron Weasley's case, he was fully convinced he received "Liquid Luck" and his performance skyrocketed even though it had NOTHING to do with the Felix Felicis. His mind told him that his performance would increase, so it did despite no outside influence.
Now let's look at some muggle-related scientific studies that put this phenomenon into perspective...
One of our favorite studies that highlights just how powerful our minds are when it comes to the power of suggestion & placebo is a study in which 15 athletes were given weight lifting programs to test their athletic performance. The study would last roughly 11 weeks. The catch was that the athletes were told those who made the most improvements after the first 7 weeks would receive Dianabol, an anabolic steroid, to further test their strength gains in the final four weeks of the program. After the first seven weeks, the athletes improved their lifts by an average of 5.8lbs to their squat & 10lbs to their bench press. Researchers then selected a random group of 6 athletes & told them they would be getting the anabolic steroids, however, the athletes actually just received placebo pills. Here’s what happened….
After the final four weeks of the study, the 6 athletes that were told they received the steroids added an average of 41.8lbs to their back squat & 29.3lbs to their bench press! That’s nearly a 7x increase to their back squat in almost half the time! The same was said for other lifts that were tested such as the military press & seated press. Pretty crazy, right?
Despite not actually taking any anabolic steroids, these athletes clearly got stronger by a significant amount. They fully believed they were taking steroids & expected to improve their strength gains so they did! However, they did so all on their own without the help of any anabolic steroids.
Another fun study that puts the power of the placebo effect on display is called "Mind Over Milkshakes: Mindsets, Not Just Nutrients, Determine Ghrelin Response." In this study, researchers took 46 participants & split them into two groups. They gave one group a milkshake with a nutrition label that read 620 calories and gave the second group the same milkshake, but with a label that read 140 calories. Both milkshakes actually contained 380 calories, but researchers wanted to test how influential the nutrition label would be on hunger & satiety levels after consumption. What they found was so interesting! After drinking the milkshakes, researchers monitored the participant's ghrelin levels (hunger hormone) and found the group that drank the “620 calorie” shake had lower ghrelin levels & reported feeling satiated & full after drinking the shake. Conversely, the group that consumed the “140 calorie” shake had higher ghrelin levels & reported feeling less satiated & hungry after consuming the milkshake despite the milkshakes being the exact same!
Yet, another study that shows how impactful our mind is over even our physiological responses! These participants’ hunger hormones were actually affected by how many calories they THOUGHT they were consuming.
And it’s important to note here that these improved strength gains & ghrelin levels were still “real” despite the placebo effect’s place in these studies. Because placebo drugs are used in organized control trials testing out new medication or supplements, we tend to associate the placebo effect with something that doesn’t actually work when we can note above how real these athletes' results were, milkshake drinker's ghrelin levels were, & how real Ron Weasley’s performance was at the Quidditch match without any outside influence.
So what can be taken away from these studies & how is it applicable to you in your everyday life?
Use Placebo to Your Advantage
Your mind is SO powerful. Maybe even more powerful than the supplement, diet, or “magic pill” we think will give us results is itself. We’ve seen it time & time again in our own clients. When they believe something is going to work for them, usually it works!
For example, if you think drinking BCAAs intra-workout will help stimulate muscle growth you could, unknowingly, be willing to push harder in the gym, and go heavier on your lifts, therefore, stimulating muscle growth. Will the BCAAs help? Maybe, but there's not a ton of research to suggest that BCAAs do much for optimizing muscle protein synthesis for those who already consume 0.8-1g/lb of body weight in protein. Now, you might receive some positive effects from certain supplements, or diets that might not actually be giving you benefits, but know it's because your mind BELIEVES you will receive benefits in most cases.
The power of placebo is underrated. It doesn't mean that these supplements, or diets don't work. Some do, some don't, but what's most important is what your mind believes works and doesn't work. That being said, we can use the placebo effect to our advantage! If you think a supplement or diet works, and it enhances your performance, gives you results, etc., keep doing it! We can see in the studies above that the effects you might be getting may not be occurring at the cellular level, but belief in the supplement, diet, etc. can actually trigger a neurological response that’s similar to the effects of the supplement, diet, or drug itself. So this isn’t to say stop taking the supplement or stop the dieting protocol even if its effects are placebo, just understand the power your mind has over influencing your decisions. This might mean doing your due diligence & doing further research before investing in a supplement or dieting protocol. Get alllll the information & evidence you need to make an informed decision before jumping the gun.
Practice Positive Mindset
These studies prove how vital of a role mindset plays in how our bodies respond. This means if we’re not working on our mindset & developing the self-belief that we can be successful & do hard things, we might be missing out on a key component that can drive us towards our goals.
If you tell yourself you lack “willpower,” then you probably will.
If you tell yourself you’re weak or can’t get stronger, it will probably be much harder for you to get stronger.
If you tell yourself you can’t get results because you’re “broken,” you will be less likely to achieve your desired results.
If you tell yourself you can’t lose weight, you more than likely won’t because you won’t be willing to put forth the effort to make the changes necessary to generate weight loss.
Moreover, the way we speak to ourselves & what we say to ourselves has a huge impact on what our perceived reality is. If you tell yourself you’re the type of person that is health-conscious, even in the early stages of forming new habits around your nutrition & wellness, odds are you’ll likely make the best decisions possible for yourself in nutrition-related situations. The participants in the above examples truly believed they were taking steroids or consuming more calories & their bodies responded how they would if they were actually taking steroids or consuming more calories! This just goes to show how powerful the placebo effect is as well as just simply believing in yourself.
The more we can put this concept into practice in our own lives, the more our habits, actions, and choices can start aligning with our goals. Ultimately, you are in the driver’s seat when it comes to how you speak to yourself & if you choose to build yourself up (as we oftentimes will do for others before ourselves).
So practice being kind to yourself, encouraging yourself, & embrace the power of placebo!
Ariel, G., and W. Saville. Anabolic steroids: the physiological effects of placebos. Med. Sci. Sport 4:124-1972.
Corbin, William & Brownell, Kelly & Salovey, Peter. (2011). Mind Over Milkshakes: Mindsets, Not Just Nutrients, Determine Ghrelin Response. Health psychology: official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association. 30. 424-9; discussion 430. 10.1037/a0023467.
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