Cognitive tricks show promise in reducing food cravings

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Results of two separate studies presented at ObesityWeek 2014 indicate that the brain's reward center may be a valuable tool in helping patients overcome food cravings.

To test cognitive strategies to suppressive cravings, Richard Weil CD, of Mt. Sinai St. Luke's Hospital in New York, and colleagues conducted a study involving 55 severely obese patients (average body mass index, 43.7).

Scientists studied the participants as they performed 30-second distraction tasks to reduce cravings of the subject's favorite foods. All of the distraction tasks worked to reduce the intensity of food cravings, reported the investigators.

"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," said Weil to MedPage Today.

In a separate study, Kathryn Demos, PhD, of Brown University, and colleagues examined brain activity of heavier patients (n=25) given images of foods to assess how mental distraction techniques changed the participants' activity.

While patients' looked at pictures of foods, the researchers asked them to use one of four cognitive techniques:   

  1. Distract: Think about anything other than the food
  2. Allow: Accept your thoughts and recognize they're just thoughts that don't need to be acted upon
  3. Later: Focus on the negative long-term consequences of eating the food
  4. Now: Focus on the immediate reward of the food

Focusing on long-term consequences reduced the urge to eat most significantly, reported the investigators. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of participants revealed that brain activity in areas associated with inhibitory control increased.

"Simply thinking in a different way affects how the brain responds to tempting food cues in individuals with obesity," said Demos, adding that the 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."

Cognitive tricks show promise in reducing food cravings
Cognitive tricks show promise in reducing food cravings

BOSTON -- Researchers have sharpened their focus on the brain's reward centers with the hope of developing new strategies for dealing with obesity.

Two studies reported here at the Obesity Week meeting show that cognitive strategies for turning attention away from food cravings help patients turn off the desire to indulge -- at least temporarily.

"Food craving has become a much more prominent focal point because we're finding out that the brain's reward pathways are what drive most of the overeating in the U.S. and industrialized nations," Chris Ochner, PhD, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told MedPage Today.

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