Food cravings may be powerful, but they’re not indestructible


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Food cravings can be so powerful they undo the best dieting efforts. But it may be possible to tamp down those yearnings using some cognitive exercises that block images of what’s being craved, researchers suggest in a new paper.

The authors of the paper, published in the current issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, looked at past research on cravings (some of it their own) to understand the mental mechanisms behind strong desires for certain foods. Some studies have shown that people conjure up images of what they crave when the desire hits.


One study found that images of craved foods were so strong they interfered with cognitive tasks. As test subjects smelled and looked at their favorite chocolate, they were asked to perform an assignment. Those in proximity to the chocolate had slower reaction times and solved mathematical equations more slowly than those who had colored wooden blocks in their midst.

The researchers, from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, wondered if the reverse of this scenario would be true -- if cognitive tasks could dampen cravings.

The authors of this paper wrote a study in 2007 in which cravings were induced in the test subjects, who were then asked to imagine common sights, sounds and smells. The visual and olfactory distractions reduced cravings for food and chocolate, but the sound distraction did not.

In another study, the authors asked test subjects to conjure images of favorite foods, then watch a visual noise display. That lessened the vibrancy of the food images more than listening to a sound distraction and reduced the level of food cravings. They suggest that a practical application for this might be incorporating a comparable visual noise display on a smart phone or similar device.

In the paper, they wrote: ‘Although food differs from these other substances in that, biologically, we all have to eat, for some people unwanted food cravings can be just as distressing and compelling as cravings for cigarettes, alcohol, or other drugs. Hence the cognitive experimental approach presented here may have broader implications and utility beyond the food and eating domain.’

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo: Louai Beshara / AFP/Getty Images