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What the secrets of the brain reveal about getting it right when you have to

To Curb Food Cravings, Train Yourself to Avoid Temptation

You can change how captivated you are by food

The cues are everywhere. Whether it’s the smell of freshly baked cookies as you enter your favorite bakery, those mouth-watering pizza commercials on TV, or the donut shops that seem to be popping up on every corner, food temptations abound. And, it turns out that when you are bombarded by food cues, you tend to consume more. Case in point, people in an office eat more candy when there is a candy jar on top of a desk in plain view than when the candy is hidden in a drawer.

It’s probably not so surprising to learn that the abundance of food and the cues to eat it in Western society may contribute to overeating and obesity. What is surprising is that you can quickly train yourself to avoid temptation, simply by changing how you look at cues to eat.

In a study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, a group of Australian researchers trained people to look differently at pictures of chocolate (specifically to look away from tempting chocolate images when they appeared) and then measured how much chocolate people actually ate.

Here is how the experiment went: Volunteers were told they would be performing an attention task where two pictures were presented side-by-side on a computer screen. After about half a second, the pictures disappear and a dot appears where one of the pictures was previously. Your job is to simply say whether the dot is in the location previously occupied by the left or right picture. Here is where things get interesting. Some of the pictures depict chocolate (say a chocolate bar or pudding) and some depict a non-chocolate food item (say, pizza). Most importantly, for some people, the dot almost always (on 90% of the trials) replaces a chocolate picture (prompting people to start paying more attention to the chocolate images) and, for other people, the opposite happens (the dot almost always replaces a non-chocolate food product) – prompting them to shift their attention away from the chocolate pictures when they pop up. People learn pretty quick whether the dot is going to be in the same place as the chocolate or the opposite.

After the attention task, folks took part in a “taste test” where they were given two muffins – one chocolate and one blueberry. People were asked to taste each muffin and rate its sweetness, texture and how much they liked it, among other things. Folks were told they could sample as much of each muffin as they liked, but that they only had 10 minutes to do so. The researchers weighed the muffins before and after to see how much each person had eaten.

Sure enough, people who had been trained to direct their attention away from the chocolate pictures  (the “avoid” group) ate less of the chocolate muffin (almost 20 grams less) than those who had gone through the attention training that prompted them to focus on the chocolate pictures instead (the “attend” group). There was no difference in blueberry muffin consumption across these two groups.

This work is so striking because it shows how simply practicing ignoring a tempting food like chocolate for 20 minutes or so can actually change how much you eat of it. The authors think this sort of attentional training could be used to combat pathological overeating or help those trying to lose weight. Of course, eating healthy and exercising are a very important part of the weight-loss process. But, if something as simple as practicing ignoring food cues helps curb cravings, it could prove to be a useful addition to your weight loss regimen.

For more on learning to control unwanted thoughts and behaviors, check out my book Choke.

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Kemps, E. et al. (2014). Attentional Retraining Can Reduce Chocolate Consumption. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied.

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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