How to nip chocolate cravings in the bud
Whatever diet you’re trying to follow, if chocolate is your weakness, you’re likely to find yourself fighting the urge to eat it at times. And that may happen whether your diet includes your favourite treats, or tells you to banish them. Understanding more about cravings and what happens in our brains may help you deal with cravings whatever your weight loss approach.
Do chocolate cravings get the better of you?
We all know that particular foods can be hard to resist, especially the ones that involve lots of fat, sugar and salt. Allegedly a single square of high quality dark chocolate can satisfy a sweet tooth, though unfortunately not mine.
The thing is, the foods that we crave in the first place seem to by-pass our off-switch for eating. If you find it easier to decline a second helping of steamed veg than seconds of sticky toffee pudding, keep reading. In this blog I’m going to use chocolate as the example of a commonly-craved food that is easy to overeat, and I’m going to tell you about a study that looked at what happened to chocolate cravings when people were given different levels of demanding tasks to do after they’d been exposed to chocolate.
What happens in your mind when you crave chocolate
Craving happens in two stages – first we have a thought of the chocolate, whether that just spontaneously popped up or was triggered by seeing something that triggered the thought. Then we go on to dwell on how it might taste, and we elaborate the idea of the chocolate, unwittingly strengthening the craving as we go.
The first of these two stages is to do with noticing the idea of the chocolate. Previous research has shown that the more demanding the task you’re doing, the less likely you are to notice external reminders of food.
But what if the craving begins with a spontaneous popping-up of a chocolate thought?
New research on cravings
Dr Jenny Morris and her colleagues at the University of Sussex wanted to find out more about this.
Sixty women were given computer-based tasks in blocks of high- and low-perceptual load. The difference between high and low was the difficulty of correctly identifying a particular letter out of a set of letters, or identifying the letter when the other items on the screen were just ‘o’ shapes. The second is a much less demanding task on our brain than the first.
Before the computer task began, the researchers got the women to think about some chocolate – really think about it – and how good it would taste, to induce a degree of craving for the chocolate.
Primed in this way, each of the women then had to do the computer task and were told to suppress any thoughts about chocolate while they were doing the letter-finding task. The researchers then measured how many chocolate-related thoughts the women had.
What was interesting was that the women reported fewer food-related thoughts when they were doing the high perceptual load task compared with the low perceptual load task.
What does the research tell us?
Attention is a limited-capacity resource, and the extent to which we go on to elaborate a spontaneous thought of chocolate depends on the brain-load involved in the current task we are doing. If what we’re doing right now takes little perceptual load, we have spare mental capacity to think about something else (how lovely chocolate might taste) at the same time.
How can you use this research for your own benefit?
The authors suggest that if you’re sitting at a desk writing a simple email (low perceptual load) you’ll have spare mental attention to think about chocolate, so the choco-thought would be more likely to catch your attention and go on to the second stage of craving of elaborating that initial thought – the craving would develop and you’ll be more likely to end up eating. If you wanted to prevent the craving, you could switch to doing something more demanding on your attention, such as filing or working on a complex spreadsheet.
It seems to me that what will be really helpful here is to be able to use this knowledge in situations where you can predict that cravings might develop – if you tend to crave chocolate mid-afternoon, allocating high-attention tasks to that part of the day may really help to avoid giving in to cravings. The beauty of this is, as the authors of the study say, that you can nip cravings in the bud, before your mind has started embellishing and elaborating the thoughts of the chocolate, so the craving will be less.
If your tricky time for cravings is in the evening and you don’t want to be poring over spreadsheets in your down-time, try an absorbing game, either a puzzle (words, numbers, jigsaws – whatever floats your boat) or a game on your phone will do, such as Tetris.
Interestingly, the study also looked at what happened in people who really like chocolate, people who tend to have chocolate cravings often and people who were hungry during the experiment. It is these groups of people who struggle to resist cravings most when they are doing tasks that don’t take much mental attention. But when they were given high-attention tasks to do, the craving levels still came down, showing that the effect is quite powerful.
Does the study apply to everyone?
This study didn’t have any participants who were living with obesity, so the authors note that it isn’t yet known whether this finding will be the same for people who are. If you are living with obesity and want to try this out, you could do your own personal mini-experiment to see whether predicting times when you might crave chocolate (or whatever) and planning high-demand tasks at those times might help you reduce the cravings. If you do try this then please email me as I’d be interested to hear your observations (firstname.lastname@example.org).
If you are familiar with Appetite Retraining, you’ll know that my approach to helping people change how they eat is to plan meal and snack times around your lifestyle, and then adjust the size and content of meals to allow you to feel definitely hungry (-3 on the Appetite Pendulum) by the start of each meal/ snack. On that basis, I wouldn’t suggest distracting yourself when you are definitely hungry, although I certainly would suggest this when you are only slightly hungry, as tolerating mild hunger can be so helpful in learning to eat in tune with your body. If ignoring your body’s hunger and fullness signals has led to weight gain, you’re likely to lose weight this way.
McCarthy, H (2019) How to Retrain Your Appetite: Lose weight eating all your favourite foods. Collins and Brown
Morris, Ngai, Yeomans and Forster (2020) A high perceptual load task reduces thoughts about chocolate, even while hungry. Appetite, 151 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2020.104694