Chocolate Week – Part 3

Addicted to chocolate? Or wondering about how you can overcome those cravings? In Part 2 we looked at the effects chocolate has on the brain, including the effects that chocolate has on the brains of cravers and non-cravers. In Part 3 we’re looking at controlling those chocolate cravings.


Dieting has been linked to an increase in cravings for “forbidden foods” such as chocolate and people who diet show a larger response to just images of chocolate than non-dieters. The thinking is that by restricting food intake increases the desire for these foods and may also increase feelings of guilt and anxiety. Also, stronger cravings may increase the likelihood of breaking a diet or resuming unhealthy eating behaviour. That’s not to say don’t diet, but the need to learn an effective way to control cravings might be even more important.


A recent study by Dr Robyn Vast from the CSIRO looked at the relative effectiveness of self-control of chocolate cravings. Dr Vast recruited 110 self-confessed chocolate addicts and, showing a streak of pure evil, gave each participant a bag of chocolate. In a week’s time the participants had to return the bag for weighing, but were given strict instructions to not eat any of the contents. The difference in weight from the start to the end of the week would show just how successfully each participant had managed to control their cravings.


To investigate different strategies for self-control, Dr Vast divided the participants into three groups – one were left to their own devices, another were taught techniques to control their cravings, and the third were told to accept their cravings as part of who they are but realise their brain as a separate entity and their thoughts as just thoughts, identify their cravings as just unhelpful thoughts and to ignore them. Not control the thoughts, but accept them and realise they were just thoughts and not actually something physical. Around 80-90% of our thoughts are negative, and by accepting these thoughts but labelling them as a negative thought and then psychologically discarding them it prevents the thoughts from affecting our emotions.


The theory of group 3 is called cognitive defusion, and suggests that accepting thoughts as just thoughts and not something physical may be a way to overcome, or at least minimise, their impact. In a literal sense, when having a chocolate craving we experience it as if we really need chocolate. But if we consider our mind as a separate entity which just produces thoughts, we realise that that we don’t actually need chocolate, it’s just a thought. The next step is to discard a thought we deem as negative.


After the week, the success rates for overcoming their cravings and not touching the chocolate were around 43% for the group left to their own techniques and 56% for the group taught control techniques. Incredibly, 81% of the people in the group told to accept their thoughts then discard them as just a negative thought were successful in resisting eating any of the chocolate.


So what’s the best way to overcome a chocolate addiction? Not controlling your thoughts, but rather accepting them but think of your mind as a separate entity and not actually experience the thought.


There may be another option though. Research from last year suggested another way to overcome cravings – imagination. When people eat a lot of a particular food they begin to reduce their desire for that food and the amount they eat, this effect is called habituation. What has been found is that just imagining eating food will begin to replace the feeling that you actually need to eat it. This effect works for chocolate, if you repeatedly imagine eating chocolate, you will actually eat less of it. The trick is to imagine yourself eating the chocolate, just imagining chocolate by itself will increase cravings and appetite for it, but by imagining eating it, you reduce your desire for it.


The take home message from these strategies appears to be the need to accept the thoughts of craving, and that trying to ignore them is a flawed strategy. According to the experts at least, its better to acknowledge the craving and then deal with it.


Thanks again to Dr Robyn Vast from the CSIRO for presenting her study data.


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