We fantasize about the moment we can pop a decadent piece of chocolate into our mouths. Bite after bite, we continue to crave more, and before we know it, we’ve eaten an entire box of chocolates. We may have more power over these cravings than we know: Researchers at Flinders University School of Psychology in Australia found two mindfulness techniques, cognitive defusion and guided imagery, both curb cravings, and could offer a potential cure for chocolate addiction. 

“If we tackle the issue when it first pops up in your mind – particularly if you are not hungry – then it’s much easier than waiting for those cravings to gather force,” said Sophie Schumacher, lead author of the study, and a Flinders Psychology Ph.D candidate, in a statement.

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Previous research has found people can get addicted to chocolate like drug users grow a dependency on drugs. Researchers at Drexel University found people experienced psychological reactions while eating chocolate, including intense pleasure and craving more, which are similar to those caused by some drugs. They suspect multiple characteristics of chocolate, including sugar, cocoa, and these observed drug-like effects, play an influential role in increasing chocolate cravings.

In the new study, published in the journal Appetite, Schumacher and her colleagues found the key to limiting chocolate consumption and addiction is to target the initial craving thoughts before they manifest into intense cravings. They applied the elaborate-intrusion theory to test whether two techniques — cognitive defusion and guided imagery — could reduce cravings. Two test groups of young women were included in the study: a general sample, and those who wished to cut down on eating chocolate.

Cognitive defusion was used to target the first stage of craving, or when we first begin to think about chocolate. It works by having us distance ourselves from the craving thought, and see it as something that doesn't need to be followed up with an acition. The second technique, known as guided imagery, targets the second stage of craving, or when we start to imagine chocolate and what it looks, smells, and tastes like. Instead of seeing chocolate, guided imagery encourages us to replace it with another image, like being in a forest or on a beach.

Eating chocolate from heart-shaped box Researchers at Flinders University have unveiled two mindfulness techniques to curb chocolate cravings, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. Photo courtesy of Pexels, Public Domain

The findings revealed cognitive defusion lowered the frequency of intrusive thoughts, vivid imagery, and craving intensity for both test groups. The researchers emphasized the importance of addressing these thoughts and finding a distraction to deter bad eating habits.

Schumacher suggests, "learn to nip off these cravings at the bud – by giving yourself a constructive distraction such as imaging a walk in a forest –  can help to lower the intrusiveness of the thoughts and vividness of the imagery."

The first step is becoming mentally aware of how our thoughts influence our behavior. Sometimes we'll tell ourselves, "I need chocolate," but Schumacher believes this isn't always true, and we don't need to act upon our desires. Rather, we should use our different senses, such as sights, sounds, and smells, to change the craving-related imagery.

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Brian Wansink, Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, has conducted multiple studies on food psychology, and how to "hack the brain" into eating responsibly. Visual cues can also help curb poor eating habits. For example, Wansink mixed regular Pringles with dyed red Pringles to monitor how a visual change could influence eating habits in a group of women watching TV.

Women given the regular Pringles ate 23 on average, while those with the doctored package ate 10 to 15, respectively. It's believed the break in pattern made the women more aware of what they were eating. 

Whether your weakness is chocolate or cookies, practicing mindful eating can eliminate excess calories, and weight, and help us practice a healthy lifestyle.

Source: Schumacher S, Kemps E, and Tiggemann M. Acceptance- and imagery-based strategies can reduce chocolate cravings: A test of the elaborated-intrusion theory of desire. Appetite. 2017.

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