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Chocoholic

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“Chocoholic” – that was my nickname as a kid, and it was an appropriate one since chocolate was the only form of dessert I ate. I can attest to the fact that there is no sweet comfort food quite like chocolate. Seriously though, think of how often you have heard your friends or people in general state something along the lines of “I’m craving something sweet right now,” and they end up eating chocolate, or how many times they express that they “need a piece of chocolate!” We frequently feel these cravings in everyday life and normally do not question them, but do you ever wonder whether there is another reason or force pushing you to crave food, especially sweets and if so, how do you get it to disappear? The answer can actually be you, as demonstrated in the Werthmann et al. study “Attention Bias for Chocolate Increases Chocolate Consumption – An Attention Bias Modification Study.”

In this experiment, the researchers wanted to discover whether attending to food increases your craving for it. They gathered 56 undergraduate females to participate in the study. They only allowed females to participate because in general, they tend to have eating patterns that differ from males. The researchers focused the study specifically on chocolate cravings – the most common sweet that women yearn for! Half the women were shown pictures of chocolate, while the other half saw pictures of shoes, which is obviously another item females are known to love.

Imagine yourself as a participant in the study being shown either images of chocolate or shoes. Naturally, the appearance of these items captures your attention as a reflexive response to their presence and causes you to automatically look at the image. Some of the individuals in the study are told to focus on the picture when it pops up on the screen – this is the natural, inherent eye movement, called a saccadic eye movement. The rest of you are told to look elsewhere when the image is presented. In order to successfully do this, you need to suppress the reflexive response to look at the picture and force yourself to attend to something else. This is called an anti-saccadic eye movement because you are going against your natural reaction to look at the item when it appears.

After the researchers show you the images, they tell you that they hid two chocolates in the room for you to search for. After seven minutes they make you stop looking for the chocolate, if you were still searching, and revealed that they actually only hid one chocolate! They recorded each one of your search times for the second chocolate in order to determine how motivated you were to find it. To compensate for the deception, you are given a bowl of chocolate and can take as much as you want! However, the researchers had ulterior motives and actually recorded the weight of the bowl before and after you took the chocolate, using the weight difference as a measurement of chocolate intake in grams. Next, they have you answer a questionnaire that focuses on how hungry you are and how much you are craving food in general, rather than specifically chocolate.

As expected, the participants who were shown pictures of chocolate and were told to look at the images as they came up on the screen ate more chocolate than the participants who attended to images of shoes. What is interesting though, is that the group of participants that were shown pictures of chocolate, but instructed to resist looking at the image as it appeared, had the highest amount of chocolate consumption. The results show that concentrating on chocolate at all increases the consumption and craving of it, but they also suggest that resisting the natural response to attend to chocolate increases the desire to eat it even more. This is obviously interesting, but what does it mean? To me, it means think before you diet!

How many times do you hear about crazy diets where people only drink liquids for a week or do not eat anything with carbohydrates? Currently, these types of eating restrictions drown the United States population, especially the female population. The popularity of these diets coincides with the surge to eat healthier, organic foods and the increase in production of gluten free and lactose free items. I whole-heartedly support eating healthy, unprocessed food, yet I cannot help but question whether cutting entire food groups or items out of one’s diet without a medical reason is actually beneficial. This study only increased my inclination that it is not! As the results show, consciously resisting a food item can actually cause you to eat more of it when you are able to. Therefore, do not follow a diet that tells you to cut out specific types of food because this tends to backfire, making all of the time spent resisting that item a waste. Instead, the results support diets that have you eat small portions of less healthy foods or in this case, have you consume one piece of chocolate a day. This eating style fulfills your craving, but regulates how much of that specific food you consume.

References

National Geographic. (2011, August 11, 2011). Incredible SNAPs: Digital dream maker. Message posted to http://www.incrediblesnaps.com/collection-of-yummy-chocolates

Werthmann, J., Field, M., Roefs, A., Nederkoorn, C., & Jansen, A. (2014). Attention bias for chocolate increases chocolate consumption—An attention bias modification study. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 45(1), 136-143. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2013.09.009

 

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  1. April 23rd, 2014 at 21:26 | #1

    I thought this was a really interesting study and blog post. I think it makes a lot of sense intuitively that if you are forced to stare at chocolate for long enough you will start craving it. I know in my own life I crave dessert much less if I avoid walking by the dessert section in the dining hall. Attending to something like food, especially for an extended period of time, is bound to increase craving for that food. You can only stare at a piece of chocolate cake or cookie dough ice cream for so long before you have to have it!

    I like how you mentioned some implications this could have on weight loss interventions. It would be good to design a strategy to help people trying to lose weight to shift attention away from tempting foods in order to decrease cravings. I wonder if it makes a difference if attention is shifted away from food consciously and voluntarily (endogenous orienting), or if attention is captured spontaneously and reflexively (exogenous orienting)? I expect that a more conscious and controlled attentional shift would show less craving than a reflexive shift because the person would be goal-driven to shift their attention away from the tempting food and not just reacting involuntarily.

  2. May 1st, 2014 at 22:01 | #2

    I really love the idea of this blog post! Everyone always says that they are craving chocolate. Your introduction really pulled me in and made me want to keep reading. It made the study very relevant to everyday life. The layout of the blog is awesome. Your intro is great. Then you talk about the science behind everything and your ending explore further implications of these findings.

    I can see how staring at chocolate can induce the cravings. Paying attention to chocolate would make me want to eat it. Does that however mean that everyone that craves chocolate is thinking about it all the time? I know I crave something sweet after dinner sometimes but I don’t feel like I am thinking about it alot. Is Attentional focus of chocolate the main reason for craving?

    I think your description of the procedure was very detailed. It layed out the entire experiment nicely. However, I do believe that you can make it a little less detailed and we will understand the idea behind it more easily. Some parts of the procedure got a little confusing, I had to reread to fully understand it.

    I loved the ending of your blog. It really tied everything together and made me think about how this sudy could affect weightloss. I really enjoyed reading your piece.

  3. October 7th, 2014 at 23:33 | #3

    I was drawn to your blog post, admittedly, by the word “chocolate” in the title. Like you, I am a self-proclaimed chocoholic. I have even noticed in my own life that when I think I have chocolate in the cabinet, but have actually run out, I spend an inordinate amount of time searching for it. Similar to the people in the study, the more I think about chocolate, the more I crave it (and I think that is starting to happen now, as I write about chocolate. yum!) I wonder if people who consistently spend more time thinking about chocolate will crave it more and more over time. That is, if you (hypothetically) had someone in the attend-to-chocolate condition over a long period of time, would they have less cravings that someone who was in the same condition for a shorter period of time? If it did, it could be related to Logan’s “Instance Theory,” which compares memory and algorithms as different ways to solve attentional “problems.” Logan says that solutions which delve into long term memory are quicker to access than solutions that need to be thought out with an algorithm. Would increased chocolate-attention increase one’s memory for chocolate craving, thus increasing the craving itself? I’m not sure I want to find out, I would rather just eat the chocolate.

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