Meditating can help a lot of things, stress in particular, but it can also prevent food cravings. In a new study, researchers wanted to dig a little deeper to better understand how being mindful may decrease your need to reach out and grab that piece of chocolate. In three simple mind exercises, participants of the study were able to lessen their cravings.
“There is now good evidence that mindfulness strategies generally work at managing food cravings, but we don’t yet know what aspect of mindfulness and what mechanisms are responsible for these effects,” Julien Lacaille, a psychologist at McGill University in Quebec, told Reuters. “This is what motivated this research.”
In the study, the researchers reviewed 196 participants, splitting them up into five groups: four were trained in mindfulness training, and the last was used as the comparison group, and were told to simply “distract themselves” to prevent food cravings. The other four groups, however, received special mindfulness training in how to fend off chocolate cravings.
All of the participants who were involved in the research were prone to intense chocolate cravings, and rated their level of craving by responding to questions like, “I eat chocolate to cheer me up when I am down” or “Chocolate often preys on my mind.”
The people who received mindfulness training were told to exercise three different actions when they received a chocolate craving: The first was awareness, or the ability to notice the thought or craving; the second was acceptance, or not judging the thought; and the third was dis-identification, or detaching yourself from the craving by seeing such thoughts as separate from yourself. After two weeks, the participants received a chocolate bar to unwrap and touch, for one minute. Afterwards, they rated their level of craving.
The researchers found that the people who had been trained in mindful thinking actually craved the chocolate much less, “because they now perceived it as generally less desirable,” Lacaille told Reuters. And it was the third exercise, dis-identification or detachment from the thought, that was the most successful. Once people are able to identify cravings as simply thoughts that are separate from their bodies and minds as a whole, they are more likely to dispel them quickly.
“Something we can all take away from this study is that we are not our thoughts and that we can take control over our thoughts in a relatively short period,” Patrick Williams, a postdoctoral researcher and psychologist at the University of Chicago, told Reuters. “Real brain-changing benefits of meditation come from thousands of hours of practice. As the researchers rightly point out in their article, the long-term effects of meditation on combating craving require further research.”
Previous studies have shown that mindfulness prevents food cravings, like the study that compared two techniques that help people change the way they think: cognitive defusion and cognitive restructuring. Cognitive defusion is a way to help people better understand how they think, whereas cognitive restructuring involves identifying a thought as inaccurate, and replacing it with a more accurate one (such as, “I need chocolate” vs. “I don’t need chocolate; I want chocolate but can do something else instead”). The participants who practiced cognitive defusion, where they accepted their thoughts as is — “I notice my thought of needing chocolate. Interesting” — actually had improved results compared to the group replacing “inaccurate” thoughts with “proper” ones.
All in all, it appears that acknowledging, accepting, then detaching yourself from your thoughts is the best way to prevent chocolate cravings. Don’t try to suppress or ignore these cravings, or try to tell yourself that you’re wrong and feel guilty — it won’t help. Instead, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that your craving is just a thought that can be dispelled quite easily.