Policy Point Wednesday: Mindful Eating and the Chocolate Craving MindBus

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne huge obstacle to a healthy lifestyle is changing stubborn problem behavior. Most public policy interventions focus on external change: improving access to healthy foods, offering education on nutrition and cooking, and promoting physical activity. Scientific American recently reported on research in the UK, which places its focus on internal change.

In the study Resisting chocolate temptation using a brief mindfulness strategyDr. Katy Tapper and doctoral student Kim Jenkins examined the behavior of participants who were trying to reduce their chocolate consumption. 137 university students, mostly female, were were asked how much chocolate they typically ate. During the study period, they were asked to carry a clear bag of chocolates with them wherever they went and to keep a strict record of any chocolate consumption. They were offered one of three techniques to avoid eating chocolate: cognitive defusion, acceptance, or relaxation. After the 5-day study was completed, participants were once again asked how much chocolate they typically consumed to check for rebound behavior.

Two of these techniques: cognitive defusion and acceptance, fall under the category of “mindfulness-based strategies,” or strategies that increase non-judgmental awareness of a person’s experience. In cognitive defusion, an individual visualizes themselves as different from their thoughts and applies a control measure (in this instance, they used a “mindbus metaphor” where the individual imagines themselves as a bus driver, in charge of all their thought “passengers,” able to “drive away” from cravings.) In acceptance, individuals are asked to acknowledge uncomfortable thoughts and tolerate the discomfort (in this instance, a “surfing” metaphor was offered – to “surf” uncomfortable thoughts rather than “sink,” or give in to them.) The control group was offered a relaxation technique where they simply tensed and relaxed muscles in response to cravings.

The researchers decided that cognitive defusion was a more successful technique to reduce consumption than either acceptance or the control group, even though the reported amount of cravings was the same in each group. The results highlight how all mindfulness techniques are not created equal: sitting with uncomfortable thoughts may not have the same effect as actively working to create a mental distance from unwanted or uncomfortable thoughts. However, as the Scientific American article points out, the degree of difference is just barely statistically significant – and even the researchers acknowledge that more study is needed. That being said, cognitive defusion does seem to hold some promise in helping individuals control “automatic” eating, and researchers hope this method can help in other situations requiring self-control.

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