Everyone has food cravings, but some people are better at fighting off temptation than others. What’s the best mental strategy to use when the urge comes upon us to eat all those leftovers or dive into that tub of ice cream?
A new study looked at this question by putting 25 subjects under the MRI machine and making them look at pictures of pizza and french fries (P.S. this sounds like torture).
The subjects were asked to randomly use different tactics when shown the foods. Some distracted themselves, trying to think of anything else but the food. Others practiced acceptance, allowing their hungry thoughts but telling themselves they don’t have to act upon them. Another strategy was giving in and focusing on the immediate reward of the food. Finally a last strategy was called the “later” strategy, and involved subjects focusing on the negative long-term consequences of unhealthy eating.
Asked to rate their urge to eat after each round, the “later” strategy seemed to work the best. The MRI results backed this up: The people who focused on the long-term had the most increased activity in areas of the brain associated with inhibition and self-regulation.
“We found that simply thinking in a different way affects how the brain responds to tempting food cues in individuals with obesity,” writes study author Kathryn Demos, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Miriam Hospital at Brown University, in a press release.
The authors say that though this kind of strategy is used often in smoking cessation treatments, it’s not usually incorporated into weight loss plans for people who are overweight. But asking people to focus on what they might look or feel like years down the road could actually help diminish cravings in the moment.
The results are being presented this week at the Obesity Society’s annual meeting in Boston.