New research reinforces the idea that distraction techniques may reduce food cravings, leading to improved weight loss. Presented at this year’s Obesity Week, two studies showed that cognitive strategies for turning attention away from food cravings help people turn off the desire to indulge–at least briefly.
The first study used functional MRI (fMRI) to look at brain activity as overweight and obese participants looked at images of foods like ice cream and pizza–and to assess how mental distraction techniques changed that activity. They were asked to enlist four basic cognitive strategies while looking at pictures of the food, which included: distract (think about anything other than the food, allow (accept your thoughts and recognize they’re just thoughts that don’t need to be acted upon), later (focus on the negative long-term consequences of eating the food) and now (focus on the immediate reward of the food). They rated their urge to eat at the same moment that they were completing the technique. The results showed that focusing on long-term consequences reduced the urge to eat most significantly. Additionally, it increased brain activity in areas associated with inhibitory control.
A second study supports the idea that overweight and obese individuals can successfully reduce cravings through distraction. In the study, the effects of three, 30-second craving distraction techniques were examined in severely obese people. Researchers found that the effect of tapping one’s own forehead and ear with their index finger, tapping one’s toe on the floor, or a control task of staring at a blank wall, all worked significantly to reduce the cravings, with the forehead tapping having the best results. The key take-away, according to the study authors, is that it’s possible to distract ourselves from craving even our favorite foods no matter how much we weigh, which could be used as a weight loss strategy.
“Reducing cravings through different techniques has always been very helpful,” said Dr. Toby Broussard, weight loss surgeon at WeightWise Bariatric Program in Oklahoma City. “These studies are interesting and support that the techniques they describe do help reduce this craving.”