Why do some people seem more prone to cravings and indulging? A common belief has been that these people lack willpower, and the only solution is just to “be more self-controlled”. New research, however, is challenging this long-held assumption.
Cravers vs. Non-Cravers
In modern food-rich societies, people need to regulate their food intake in order to maintain a healthy weight. Research indicates that this is much harder for some than for others, due to differences in sensitivity to food cues in the environment. Those with higher sensitivities (we’ll call them “cravers”) are more likely to experience frequent thoughts, feelings and urges about food, which drives impulse eating and in turn affects weight and health. So do these “cravers” just need “a bit more self-control”?
Self-control is traditionally depicted as a struggle between impelling forces (cravings) and restraining forces (willpower). Conventional strategies have focused on helping “cravers” strengthen their willpower to resist cravings. But new research is looking into interventions that can be directed at weakening the cravings themselves.
A variety of factors can trigger thoughts about food. These thoughts, however, only become cravings that drive eating when they are “cognitively elaborated” – i.e. when we imagine and visualise the pleasure of indulging in that food. Often these thoughts result in us giving in and consuming that food.
A recent study, however, showed that disrupting that cognitive elaboration for just three minutes is sufficient to interfere with our imagery and weaken the food craving.
In this study, a mixed group of “cravers” and “non-cravers” had food cravings induced by presenting them with a menu and asking them to imagine their favourite combination of foods. Participants were then either distracted (by playing Tetris for three minutes) or not distracted (by sitting in front of blank computer screen for three minutes). At the end of the study, participants were invited to choose a snack from a selection of healthy and unhealthy snacks.
Is Tetris the solution?
Results showed that “cravers” who had not been distracted were more likely to choose unhealthy snacks than “non-cravers”. However, those “cravers” who had been distracted by the Tetris game behaved like “non-cravers” and were more likely to choose a healthy snack!
This is because playing a visually interesting game like Tetris occupies the mental processes that support imagery, therefore disrupting cognitive elaboration; it’s hard to imagine something vividly and play Tetris at the same time! Playing Tetris, even in short bursts, prevents your brain from creating those enticing images that create and sustain cravings, and without them the cravings fade.
It seems that with all the smartphone apps designed to help you watch your food intake or lose weight, the best one may just be the least scientific – and the most fun.
Van Dillen, L. & Andrade, J. (2016). Derailing the streetcar named desire. Cognitive distractions reduce individual differences in cravings and unhealthy snacking in response to palatable food. Appetite 1(96), 102-110.