When willpower isn't enough to fight cravings, you might need a trick that's even simpler. This quick fix should hold you over until your next big meal.
If you find it impossible to resist the 3 p.m. chocolate craving that hits you every day, you’ll be happy to know that you might be able to quash it—in just 30 seconds.
Two new studies presented this week at The Obesity Society Annual Meeting in Boston delved into ways to trick the brain into dismissing those junk food pangs.
Can you tap away your food cravings?
Walking around the block, popping a piece of gum into your mouth, chugging a glass of H20. You’ve heard about these fixes, and now we’ve got another to add to your arsenal. In one recent study, researchers asked a group of obese patients to try three 30-second intervention tactics to reduce cravings: Tapping their forehead, tapping their toe on the floor, or staring at a blank wall.
Researchers cued cravings by asking participants to imagine eating, smelling and tasting certain foods (try it: you can practically taste the cupcake you’re envisioning, right?). Before and after the intervention, the study participants were asked to rate the intensity of their cravings on a scale of zero (low) to 100 (high). While each trick successfully reduced participants’ longings, the most effective was forehead tapping (foot tapping ranked second).
“[These interventions] were dynamic, that is, they included movement, which engages more regions of the brain than staring at a blank wall,” says study author Richard Weil, director of the New York Obesity Research Center Weight Loss Program at St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. “Engaging the motor cortex to create movement makes the task more complicated and so it requires more work in the brain, and thus, more distraction.”
Not down for 30 seconds worth of banging out a beat on your forehead? Weil says previous research has indicated that tapping for just 10 seconds might help to some degree, too.
Battling the munchies, mentally
Thumping your foot: Pretty easy. Drumming your forehead: A little weird. But what if we told you there was a way to subdue hankerings in one minute—just by thinking?
Another study this week found that sometimes the best way to beat cravings is by tweaking your mindset. Researchers from Brown University used MRI scans to examine the brain activity of obese or overweight study participants as they looked at pictures of drool-worthy foods like pizza, French fries and ice cream. The researchers then tested a few different strategies, encouraging participants to focus on them for about a minute at a time. In a series of tests, they told them to:
- Get distracted by thinking about something other than food.
- Accept and allow their thoughts as something they didn’t need to act on.
- Focus on the negative long-term consequences of eating those goodies.
- Think about the immediate rewards of indulging.
Unsurprisingly, thinking about how amazing a sundae would taste did not deter subjects from wanting to dig in. But the other cognitive strategies did diminish participants’ desire for disco fries and other unhealthy foods—particularly when they considered how they’d pay for it later if they gave in.
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“This strategy evoked increased responses in regions of the brain involved in inhibitory control, which may suggest a mechanism through which thinking about long-term negative outcomes could serve to reduce cravings,” says study author Kathryn Demos, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the Miriam Hospital at Brown University.
But will it work for you?
While each of these tactics got good reviews in a lab setting, the jury’s still out as to whether they work in real life. Because let’s be real: The office snack stash can be brutally tempting—and you have to stare it down five days a week.
“From this study we don’t know if the effects can be sustained over longer periods of time, but our future studies will test this, and try to get a sense of how this strategy could be used in conjunction with weight loss efforts in everyday life,” Demos says.
Plus, it’s worth noting that each of these studies was conducted on overweight or obese participants. If you’re at a healthy weight, giving into cravings now and then is totally OK.
“It is a good idea to have some flexibility when it comes to cravings for certain foods,” says Chris Ochner, PhD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. ”Always denying food cravings usually leads to feeling as if the person is in dietary jail and, eventually, everyone wants out.”
Thinking about the caloric price you’ll pay for eating an ice cream cone, or committing to tapping away your taste for pizza probably isn’t necessary unless you’re looking to make a serious change.