Putting Thought Into Your Food Cravings: The Link Between The Brain And Eating Behavior

pizza3Two new research studies suggest that using distraction techniques may improve weight loss. The studies reinforce the idea that the brain can control eating behavior and that the way you think about food can have an impact on appetite.

Researchers with Miriam Hospital at Brown University in Boston, Mass. used functional MRI scans to watch participants brains as they reviewed pictures of foods such as pizza, ice cream and French fries. The researchers evaluated different strategies to reduce the desire to eat. They also discovered that thinking about the long-term, negative impact of eating these foods may be an effective way to reduce appetite.

For the study, 25 people all overweight or obese used four cognitive strategies in random order:

  • To think about something other than enticing food

  • Accept ones thoughts and recognize they are just thoughts that need to be acted upon

  • Focus on negative, long-term consequences of eating the food

  • Focusing on immediate reward of the food


The participants also underwent functional MRI scanning and rated their urge to eat on a four-point scale. The results showed that the Later Condition focusing on negative, long-term consequences of eating the food reduced the urge to eat the most. This condition also increased brain activity the most in areas associated with inhibition of overeating.

"We found that simply thinking in a different way affects how the brain responds to tempting food cues in individuals with obesity," said Dr. Kathryn Demos, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Miriam Hospital at Brown University. "Through the MRI scans we identified that thinking about the long-term, negative impact of eating unhealthy foods increased activity in a region of the brain involved in inhibitory control and self-regulation.Our results show the promising possibility that focusing on the long-term consequences of consuming unhealthy foods could help diminish cravings and, as a result, potentially enhance weight-loss efforts." Today, this particular strategy is not currently employed in standard behavioral weight-loss treatments, yet in future studies we will examine whether incorporating this strategy into weight loss treatments may be a viable new approach for clinicians to employ."

"We know that behavioral therapy is effective in helping people lose weight, but this study shows us a potentially promising new strategy to employ when working with patients," added Chris Ochner, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and incoming co-chair of TOS Public Affairs Committee. "There's a lot we can learn from studying the brain and human behavior, especially eating behavior, and we hope to see more research in this area so we can provide better treatment to people that are obese or overweight."

A second study also supports the current thinking that individuals with obesity can successfully reduce cravings using distraction tasks. For the study, researchers at Mt. Sinai St. Lukes Hospital tested the effects of three, 30-second distraction techniques to reduce cravings for favorite foods. They discovered that the effect of tapping your forehead and ear with the index finger, and tapping your foot on the floor or performing a control task such as staring at a blank wall worked significantly to reduce cravings. The forehead tapping technique worked the best.

"The novelty of our study is that the subjects had severe obesity, said Richard Weil, M.Ed. and director of the Weight Loss Program at Mt. Sinai St. Lukes Hospital. The average BMI for the study participants was 43.7, or almost 83 pounds above what is considered the high end of the overweight category. We showed that even with ahigh BMI, distraction techniques, and even the control technique, helped reduce the intensity of participants' food cravings and the vividness of the image of their favorite foods. This reinforces the idea that it's possible to distract ourselves from craving even our favorite foods no matter how much we weigh, and this could be used as a weight-loss strategy."

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