Chocolate lovers know only too well the difficulties of resisting a cocoa-filled treat; once the thought of chocolate enters the mind, it can be near impossible to ignore. However, new research suggests that a two-stage psychological technique could help to abolish those chocolate cravings.
Researchers from Flinders University in Australia reveal how cognitive defusion and guided imagery helped to lower the desire for chocolate among young women who were craving the indulgent treat.
Lead researcher Sophie Schumacher, of the School of Psychology at Flinders, and colleagues recently reported their findings in the journal Appetite.
Chocolate is undoubtedly one of the nation’s favorite treats, with United States citizens devouring around 2.8 million pounds of chocolate annually – the equivalent to around 12 pounds per person.
In moderation, chocolate may be beneficial for health, with studies linking moderate chocolate intake to better cognitive function and heart health.
However, the possible harms of consuming too much chocolate should not be overlooked; its high fat and sugar content can increase the risk of obesity and associated conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.
So how can we eradicate those intrusive thoughts that make us want to gorge on chocolatey treats? The new study suggests that it is all down to self-awareness.
Schumacher and colleagues explored what is known as the “elaborated-intrusion theory of desire” – the idea that initial thoughts about a desirable object are amplified by mental imagery.
With this in mind, the researchers hypothesized that targeting both desirable thoughts about chocolate and mental imagery of chocolate might help to reduce chocolate cravings.
The team tested this theory by conducting two experiments. The first experiment involved a group of 94 young women, while the second experiment involved a group of 97 young women who said they wished to reduce their chocolate cravings.
In both experiments, participants were randomly allocated to receive cognitive defusion, guided imagery, or a mind-wandering control condition.
Cognitive diffusion targets the initial thoughts of the desirable product – in this case, chocolate. It focuses on taking the initiative to move away from such thoughts, and realizing that we do not need to respond to these thoughts with action.
Guided imagery targets the second craving stage, whereby we start to imagine what it would be like to smell and eat chocolate. It replaces these thoughts with unrelated imagery, like a forest or a beach.
Across both groups, the researchers compared the occurrence of chocolate-related thoughts before and after each intervention, as well as the intrusiveness of these thoughts, the intensity of cravings, vividness of imagery, and chocolate consumption.
The team found that cognitive defusion led to a reduction in intrusive thoughts, vividness of imagery, and craving intensity in both groups, while guided imagery led to reductions in chocolate-related thoughts, intrusiveness, vividness of imagery, and craving intensity for chocolate cravers only.
Although chocolate consumption did not differ between groups, the researchers believe that their findings indicate that engaging in greater self-awareness when chocolate-related thoughts first hit could stop us from succumbing to cravings.
“If we tackle the issue when it first pops up in your mind – particularly if you are not hungry – then it’s much easier than waiting for those cravings to gather force.
Learn[ing] to nip off these cravings at the bud – by giving yourself a constructive distraction such as imaging a walk in a forest – can help to lower the intrusiveness of the thoughts and vividness of the imagery. We found it was important to target the initial craving thoughts before they become full-blown cravings.”