Minding the Body

The guide to health and happiness

Mindfulness Can Help Quell Chocolate Cravings

Mindfulness shows promise as a tool for resisting food temptations.

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Mmmmm, chocolate. Luscious, crave-worthy, calorie-laden chocolate is hard to resist, but new research suggests that mindfulness may help. As someone with a serious chocolate problem, I can’t resist the allure of a possible solution.

Mindfulness involves focusing awareness on moment-to-moment experience as it unfolds, noticing and accepting it without judging it. Strategies based on mindfulness are increasingly being applied to making healthy lifestyle choices. One area where they show promise is in helping people say no to food temptations.

Mindfulness Under the Microscope

In a new study in the British Journal of Health Psychology, researchers Kim Jenkins of Swansea University and Katy Tapper of City University London rounded up 135 college students who wanted to cut down on eating chocolate. Participants were taught one of three methods for resisting chocolate: cognitive defusion, acceptance, or relaxation.

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Cognitive defusion is a mindfulness-based technique. Some cognitive strategies help people change what they’re thinking. In contrast, cognitive defusion helps people change how they relate to their thoughts. Specifically, participants in the cognitive defusion group were taught to notice their thoughts and visualize the thoughts as separate from themselves, creating some mental distance.

Acceptance, another mindfulness-based technique, is exactly what it sounds like: Participants were taught to notice and accept, rather than struggle with, uncomfortable feelings. Relaxation using non-mindfulness techniques was included as a control condition.

Defusion 1, Chocolate 0

Each participant was then given a clear bag filled with 14 chocolate candies. For the next five days, participants were asked to keep the bag with them at all times and also to record any other chocolate they ate in a diary. The goal was to use the strategy they had just learned to resist eating chocolate as much as they could. Participants in the cognitive defusion group ate less chocolate than those in the control group. The same wasn’t true of those in the acceptance group, however.

How did cognitive defusion help? The researchers say that people who snack on chocolate are often engaging in automatic behavior. They think “I need something sweet” and reach for the candy bag without really noticing what they’re thinking and doing. Cognitive defusion may interrupt this process by helping people not only notice the thought, but also see it from a more detached perspective. Viewed from a distance, it may be more apparent that it’s just another passing thought, not an irresistible command.

Other Studies, Similar Results

This isn’t the first time researchers have found that mindfulness can subdue chocoholic cravings. One 2012 study compared cognitive defusion with cognitive restructuring. The latter is a technique that teaches people to challenge inaccurate thoughts and replace them with more accurate ones. For example, someone who thinks “I need something sweet” might challenge that thought with “Actually, I don’t need chocolate. I want it, but eating it won’t help me meet my goals. I can do something else instead.”

In contrast, someone using cognitive defusion might essentially say, “I notice that I’m having the thought that I need something sweet. Hi, thought!” The latter worked better. Study participants who used defusion were three times more likely to abstain from chocolate for a week than those who used restructuring.

Similarly, another study compared cognitive defusion with thought suppression—trying to deliberately stop thinking unwanted thoughts. Both groups did equally well at resisting chocolate during the weeklong study. But thought suppression didn’t seem to be as sustainable. At the study’s end, thought suppressors had a bigger rebound effect, scarfing down more chocolates when given the opportunity.

Stepping Back from Food Cravings

In short, for taming a chocolate habit, cognitive defusion seems to work better than suppressing thoughts, restructuring thoughts, or even simply accepting thoughts, another mindfulness-based technique. Right now, I’m noticing myself having the thought that cognitive defusion sounds like a strategy worth trying.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a writer who specializes in health, psychology, and the intersection between the two. She wrote here previously about how mindfulness can help quiet nicotine cravings. Follow her on Twitter. Like her on Facebook.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master's degree in health psychology.

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