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Visualization and 'Decentering' Reduce Chocolate Cravings

Chocolate cravings may be reduced using two mindfulness techniques.

Key points

  • Chocolate craving is a motivational state, an intense urge that stimulates an immediate search for and consumption of chocolate.
  • One way of fighting chocolate cravings is to use visualization, a technique that engages one’s visual-spatial memory.
  • Another technique for managing cravings is decentering, which requires learning to see chocolate-related thoughts as mere passing mental events.
Marta_Guillen/Pixabay
Source: Marta_Guillen/Pixabay

How do you like your chocolate? As chocolate bars (e.g., Kit Kat, Hershey’s), M&M’s, chocolate drinks (e.g., hot chocolate, chocolate milk), chocolate truffles, premium chocolates (e.g., Ferrero Rocher, Ghirardelli), chocolate chip cookies, brownies, mousse, pudding, or chocolate cakes?

If the above paragraph has not made you crave chocolate, consider yourself lucky. Why? Because for many, chocolate cravings can be quite intense, leading to overeating and weight gain.

But there is good news. A recent study, by Wilson and colleagues, to be published in the September issue of Appetite, suggests the two mindfulness strategies, visualization and decentering, may help reduce chocolate cravings. (Decentering and visualization are described in the last section).

First, let us learn more about chocolate cravings.

Chocolate cravings

Chocolate craving is an intense urge that motivates an immediate search for chocolate and is only satisfied by consuming chocolate. So, craving for chocolate is different from hunger.

What causes chocolate cravings? According to one theory, intrusion and elaboration:

Initially, a cue (e.g., feeling stressed out, a commercial) triggers intrusive thoughts related to chocolate. Cues result in intense cravings only if they also trigger a process of elaboration. Elaboration usually involves multisensory images. For example, after walking by someone eating Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, one may continue thinking about the chocolate’s appearance, texture, smell, and taste.

To reduce craving for chocolate, we need to interfere with the intrusion or elaboration processes.

The investigation described below examined the effects of mindfulness techniques (visualization and decentering) on craving reduction and prevention of craving development.

Investigation of reducing chocolate cravings

Participants: 108 British individuals (63 females; average age of 27 years).

Measures: Aside from the assessment of hunger and task adherence, the key measures were the Craving Experience Questionnaire-Strength or CEQ-S (e.g., “Right now, how much do you WANT chocolate?) and Craving Experience Questionnaire-Frequency or CEQ-F (e.g. “During the 4-minute audio recording, how often did you WANT chocolate?”).

Procedure: Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions (control, visualization, decentering). They completed the CEQ-S a Time 1 and a few more times—after listening to short audio instructions (Time 2), the craving induction (Time 3), and longer audio instructions (Time 4). CEQ-F and additional measures were given at this time.

Craving induction: When participants entered the room, they saw a plate with four types of chocolate (Dairy Milk, Bounty, Snickers, Lindor truffles). The second induction phase used a more powerful craving induction, requiring the individuals to select their favorite chocolate, “unwrap it, smell it, and place it with its wrapper on the empty plate directly in front of them.” They were then directed to “rate how much they liked” and “felt like eating” their favorite chocolate.

Experimental manipulation: In the decentering and visualization conditions, participants were initially instructed to imagine themselves next to a stream. Those in the visualization group were asked to imagine watching the leaves flowing in the stream, while those in the decentering group were instructed to “imagine placing any thoughts or feelings onto a leaf and watch it float down the stream.” Note, these visual exercises are similar to a technique called “guided imagery.” The control group was asked only to “let their mind wander.”

Results: Visualization and decentering reduced chocolate craving frequency and strength. They also reduced the development of chocolate cravings.

Nika_Akin/Pixabay
Source: Nika_Akin/Pixabay

How to beat chocolate cravings

Chocolate is popular around the world, including in the U.S., where annual sales of chocolate total over $20 billion. For many, consuming chocolate is not a cause for concern. In fact, consuming chocolate (especially dark chocolate) might have health benefits, such as improved mood and even cognition.

However, many people crave chocolate all the time. And some eat too much chocolate, and as a result of chocolate’s high sugar and fat content, experience health problems like obesity and diabetes.

The findings from the investigation show the psychological strategies of visualization and decentering are useful in reducing chocolate cravings or preventing cravings from developing in the first place:

Visualization

Because the process of elaboration in the development of craving requires imagination and memory, a good approach to preventing chocolate cravings is engaging in tasks that utilize visual-spatial working memory. For instance, to reduce craving for chocolate, one could play visual puzzles (e.g., Tetris) or try visualizing images unrelated to food (e.g., a nature scene, animals playing).

Decentering

The mindfulness strategy of decentering emphasizes detachment from—instead of identifying with and believing—one’s feelings and thoughts. For instance, using this mindfulness strategy, feelings are identified as passing emotional reactions and not necessarily true reflections of reality. Similarly, vivid sensory images of chocolate can be perceived as mere passing thoughts (e.g., as if passing clouds). With practice, one becomes better at letting go of thoughts related to craving for chocolate without engaging in further elaboration and eventually acting on them.

The above strategies may be applied either to the elaboration phase or the earlier intrusion phase of chocolate craving. For example, as soon as intrusive thoughts occur (e.g., after walking past a candy store), one can practice visualization. Applying these techniques at the earlier stage in the development of chocolate cravings is likely both easier and more effective in reducing cravings and preventing the consumption of chocolate. Because the elaboration process of thinking about chocolate can be pleasurable, interfering at a later stage might require more willpower.

In conclusion, fighting chocolate temptations requires awareness (e.g., of hunger signals, chocolate cues, intrusive thoughts) and the use of relevant psychological techniques (visualization, decentering) at the right time.

In general, if you have strong cravings, be it for chocolate or salty, fatty, or other sweet foods (e.g., potato chips, pizza, french fries, candy, ice cream), do not go shopping when hungry, tired, or stressed. And avoid walking by stores that sell your favorite treats. Last, if you are a stress eater, see my post to learn more about the causes of emotional eating.

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