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Does Mindfulness Help Chocolate Cravings?

by Jennifer Jules on 03/19/14

Easter is around the corner. The stores are brimming with various chocolate delights. This time of year is truly a chocolate lover's dream and a chocolate addict's nightmare. As a Chocoholic, I am proud to say that I am no longer requiring a daily chocolate bar to soothe and feed my chocolate addiction. However store aisles are fraught with temptation at this time of year. Increasingly it is becoming accepted that mindfulness can be used to assist in dealing with a wide range of health matters. As a Chocoholic and a mindfulness practitioner, I am intrigued by recent research suggesting mindfulness as an effective method of decreasing chocolate cravings. 

Increasingly it is becoming accepted that mindfulness can be used to assist in a wide range of health matters. While the research is still in its infancy for the efficacy of mindfulness and addictions, researchers are discovering that mindfulness may be an effective alternative treatment to assist in overcoming cravings. Jenkins and Tipper (2013) conducted a study on chocolate cravings because it is a food-as any Chocoholic will agree-that has strong cravings attached to its consumption. They discovered that training in the mindfulness skill of 'cognitive defusion' for five days dramatically and effectively controlled chocolate cravings and reduced chocolate consumption. 

'Cognitive Deffusion' in mindfulness teaches people to simply note their thoughts, viewing them as separate from themselves. Essentially, a thought is just a thought and is no longer connected to an emotion based action urge (such as cravings). With training in cognitive defusion, the thought becomes more and more transient. One no longer needs to automatically react to the thought 'I want chocolate' with the action urge of eating chocolate.  Jenkins and Tipper (2013) hypothesize that the urge to reach for chocolate is an automatic response to the thought of chocolate. Cognitive defusion strategies may be effective because they disrupt the link between the emotional action urge and thoughts. 

A more recent study adds further support into mindfulness effectively decreasing chocolate cravings. Lacaille et al 2014 found that developing the mindfulness skill of disidentification decreased chocolate cravings. Disidentification--a form of cognitive defusion--trained participants to separate themselves from thoughts about chocolate cravings. The results found that disidentification was crucial to decreasing cravings. In addition, disidentification led to an attitude change about chocolate. The participants who were trained in disidentification perceived chocolate as less desirable than they had prior to the training, suggesting that mindfulness somehow effects how we link our emotions to our thoughts about chocolate cravings. 

Just how does mindfulness disrupt the link between our emotional urges and our thoughts? The answer may lie in how mindfulness affects an area of the brain, located just behind the frontal lobe, called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).  This is area, among other functions,  has connections in both the "cognitive" prefrontal cortex and in the "emotional" limbic system, thus connecting our emotions and our thoughts; it is also the area that is involved in affect regulation-the ability to control uncomfortable feelings (Stevens et al, 2011).

Neuroscientists have demonstrated that after 2 weeks of mindfulness training, there is a significant increase in activity in the ACC. Practicing mindfulness for just five 20 minute sessions causes increased blood flow to this region and after about 11 hours of practice, mindfulness actually causes positive physical changes to the ACC. In fact, this study, conducted by Tang et al (2013), suggests that mindfulness reduced cravings in participants who had no intention of changing their addictive pattern!! This leads credence to the idea that mindfulness develops areas of the brain responsible for controlling cravings and the emotional need to act upon a thought or urge. 

For us Chocoholics who engage in a practice of mindfulness, this is good news. It means we won't fall off the wagon and into a 10 pound bag of chocolate eggs should we occasionally indulge. Mindfulness can help us both manage the cravings and increase the enjoyment of having smaller amounts. If you, like myself, choose to enjoy an occasional piece of chocolate, do so mindfully. Bring all your mindful awareness to a single piece of rich, delicious chocolate and savor the explosions of flavor. If you eat chocolate mindfully, that single piece will satisfy you more than the 10 pound bag eaten on automatic pilot. So go ahead! Indulge mindfully! I bet you can eat just one!!