The Power of a Puzzle to Crush Your Cravings

Have you ever watched a magician perform a trick in which your attention was distracted long enough for you to be completely fooled by what that person is doing?

You can easily perform a similar sleight of hand to diminish or ditch your food cravings. And like other Cravings-Crushers I share, this is simple, but powerful.

Although I’ve been recommending distraction as an easy, effective Cravings-Crushing technique for years, there’s now legitimate research, which validates this simple tool.  What’s especially wonderful is that even people, who are highly sensitive to visual cues can use this fast method.

[shareable cite=”Connie Bennett, The Cravings Ninja”]Want to CRUSH Your Cravings? Distract yourself.[/shareable]Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to distract yourself, given the proliferation of transportable video games and phone apps such as Angry Birds and Subway Surfers.

Although I like to call this technique “Distract Away Your Cravings,” psychologists and brain researchers use the fancy phrase, “mental resource blocking.” Now, learn more about these fascinating findings.

The Science: In two separate studies done in Holland, brain researchers at the Leiden University Institute for Brain and Cognition tested two large groups of people to determine their sensitivity to food cues and the intensity of the cravings these cues triggered. Then the scientists tested the study participants after they distracted themselves from their food cravings by solving a puzzle.

The first study evaluated cravings-sensitivity in 91 university students (40 men, 51 women). All participants were shown a series of images of delectable foods. Then their reactions were measured on a scale that ranged from “1” (not at all sensitive to food cues) to “9” (very sensitive).

People who are very sensitive to food cues “experience frequent thoughts, feelings and urges about food in the absence of actual food deprivation,” according to the scientists.

Once the subjects’ sensitivities to a series of foods images were measured, they were randomly assigned to three groups: a distraction group, a no-distraction group, or a control group.

The distraction group was shown more food images to induce cravings. While watching these images, subjects played the widely popular Tetris puzzle or another puzzle for three minutes to distract themselves. (As you probably already know, in this game, you move and rotate blocks of various shapes to create a horizontal line of blocks without gaps.)

The other two groups simply viewed a blank computer screen for three minutes. Afterward, all three groups were offered high calorie foods.

The findings were fascinating. Subjects in the distraction group, regardless of how sensitive they had been to food imagery, reported little to no cravings for the high calorie foods. The intensity of cravings in the other two groups were unchanged from their previous levels.

In the second study, 63 participants (34 men, 29 women, average age of 29 years) were randomly assigned to distraction or non-distraction groups. Their self-reported cravings levels were measured, as with the first study.

This experiment was conducted in the afternoon and none of the participants had eaten lunch, so their hunger levels were higher than normal. The distraction group was given one of two cognitive tasks to perform: either using a code to convert numbers into letters that spelled out a word, or erasing the letters ‘s’ and ‘c’ in a letter grid and then creating words from the remaining letters.

At the end of the experiment, participants were offered either a pen or a piece of chocolate as a reward. Those who hadn’t been distracted, were more likely to choose candy but those, who were distracted were more likely to pick the pen.

The Simple Steps:

  • Carry a challenging mental puzzle or game with you at all times. You can choose a crossword puzzle from a newspaper, a Tetris puzzle, or a Rubik’s Cube. You can also download a phone app game such as  Angry Birds and Subway Surfers.
  • If you prefer, distract yourself in other ways instead: Take a short walk, either in nature, or around the block; clean your room or office; call a friend or family member; or write in your journal about your food craving.
  • When you start to feel a food craving, distract yourself in your preferred way and give it your full focus.
  • Play the game or do the distracting task of your choice for three to five minutes.
  • Then, get back to work or to whatever you were doing.
  • While you continue your routine, think about the task you’ve just completed, running images of it through your mind. Odds are you’ll have forgotten your food craving. If you haven’t, just repeat this exercise.

How It Works: Scientists working on these two experiments concluded that food desires and cravings are not merely “physiological or emotional responses” to external cues, but rather highly charged mental states. When you perform cognitive tasks before or during an exposure to food cues, your attention is distracted away from those food cues.

Your food cravings are weakened, even when you’re hungry.

Note from Connie: I’m really excited to find scientific validation to confirm that you can overcome your cravings by shifting your attention to cognitive games. Back in 1998, when I kicked sugar on doctor’s orders, I began to distract myself when cravings hit. The tool was so powerful that for years, I’ve been teaching my clients the power of distraction to shelve their cravings. You can also read about the simplicity and effectiveness of distraction in my books, Sugar Shock and Beyond Sugar Shock. 

Remember, though, that you can distract yourself in many ways. Sure, puzzles are a great method but you also can redirect your focus by listening or dancing to music, washing dishes, running errands or talking on the phone to friends or loved ones.

Sources:  Van Dillen LF, et al, “Derailing the streetcar named desire. Cognitive distractions reduce individual differences in cravings and unhealthy snacking in response to palatable food.” Appetite. 2016 Jan; 96:102-110., accessed Jan. 29. 2016.

Van Dillen LF, et al. “Turning a blind eye to temptation: how cognitive load can facilitate self-regulation.” Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, 2013 Mar;104(3):427-43., accessed Jan. 29, 2016

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