Mindful Eating vs. Cognitive Defusion for Food Cravings

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Of all the mindfulness skills, cognitive defusion appears to be the most effective, simple, and efficient approach to manage food cravings.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Mindful eating is the practice of being fully present for a meal. This may involve slowing down the pace, savoring every bite, and starting to get in tune with your body’s fullness cues. When you’re distracted, you tend to eat faster and longer. For example, men and women randomized to eat while watching TV averaged an extra slice of pizza and 71 percent more mac & cheese, totaling nearly 300 additional calories. That alone could bump your weight like eight pounds a year. This may help explain why one survey found overweight individuals reported they ate nearly half their meals while watching television. Stanford researchers found that on the weekends, about a quarter of kid’s calories may be consumed in front of the TV.

Similarly, study subjects told to eat while giving their full attention to a radio conversation or a detective story recorded on cassette tapes (like an old-school podcast) ended up eating significantly more; for instance, up to 77 percent more ice cream, compared to undistracted eating. Even just engaging in conversation eating with friends can inadvertently boost intake.

Distracted eating may also affect subsequent consumption. Have people play computer solitaire while eating a fixed-calorie meal, and they eat nearly twice as many cookies a half-hour later, as if they hadn’t fully consciously registered how much they ate when they were distracted. Conversely, if you have people listen to an audio clip encouraging them to eat mindfully, focusing on the look, smell, taste, and texture of the food, hours later they eat fewer cookies than those either eating in silence or listening instead to some neutral audiobook content.

Attending to the sensory qualities of food and our body’s reactions is just one aspect of mindful eating. Mindfulness has been described as a “moment-to-moment awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, in the present moment, as non-reactively, nonjudgmentally, and openheartedly as possible.” Just being aware may not be enough. Practicing mindfulness to deal with cravings is said to involve three skills: awareness, the ability to monitor one’s cravings; acceptance, the ability to refrain from judging yourself; and then something called “disidentification,’’ or cognitive defusion, the ability to separate oneself from your cravings.

When we are struck with a craving, a typical reaction is instead what’s called cognitive restructuring: a psychological term for challenging your thoughts and replacing them with alternative thoughts. For example, if you’re hit with the thought “I need to eat some chocolate,” instead of just reaching for a candy bar, a restructuring response might be, “No, I don’t; I can have something healthier instead.” This rarely works. More than a hundred self-identified chocolate cravers were randomized to an hour of cognitive restructuring instruction, and then given a bag of chocolates to carry around with them for a week to see how well they could resist the temptation. And, they didn’t do much better than the control group that tried it after no instruction at all.

In contrast to cognitive restructuring, the mindful eating approach called cognitive defusion involves teaching people to defuse their thoughts as “merely thoughts,” placing mental distance between themselves and their cravings. A defusion response to the thought “I need to eat some chocolate” would involve simply observing the thought (“‘I notice I’m having the thought that I need to eat some chocolate”), and thanking one’s mind for the thought (“Thanks, mind.”). A “mindbus” metaphor is used, in which people are taught to imagine themselves as the driver of a bus, and their thoughts as mere passengers. You visualize yourself taking control and being like, “Thanks for the feedbacks, folks, but this is my bus,” as you stop the bus and let the negative passengers off.

Cognitive defusion was tested head-to-head against cognitive restructuring in the same chocolate experiment, and those that got an hour of defusion instruction had three times greater odds of remaining “chocolate abstinent” in the face of a week of constant temptation. Then, defusion was put up against acceptance: instructing people to observe a thought or feeling, accept its presence, and build up a degree of tolerance for uncomfortable feelings. Study subjects were randomized to less than a half-hour of coaching on defusion, acceptance, or a control group that spent the time learning a muscle relaxation technique. They were then asked to carry a bag of chocolate candy around for five days untouched. The acceptance group failed to beat out the control group, but the defusion group did. Of all the mindfulness skills, cognitive defusion appears to be the most effective––a simple and efficient approach to manage food cravings.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Mindful eating is the practice of being fully present for a meal. This may involve slowing down the pace, savoring every bite, and starting to get in tune with your body’s fullness cues. When you’re distracted, you tend to eat faster and longer. For example, men and women randomized to eat while watching TV averaged an extra slice of pizza and 71 percent more mac & cheese, totaling nearly 300 additional calories. That alone could bump your weight like eight pounds a year. This may help explain why one survey found overweight individuals reported they ate nearly half their meals while watching television. Stanford researchers found that on the weekends, about a quarter of kid’s calories may be consumed in front of the TV.

Similarly, study subjects told to eat while giving their full attention to a radio conversation or a detective story recorded on cassette tapes (like an old-school podcast) ended up eating significantly more; for instance, up to 77 percent more ice cream, compared to undistracted eating. Even just engaging in conversation eating with friends can inadvertently boost intake.

Distracted eating may also affect subsequent consumption. Have people play computer solitaire while eating a fixed-calorie meal, and they eat nearly twice as many cookies a half-hour later, as if they hadn’t fully consciously registered how much they ate when they were distracted. Conversely, if you have people listen to an audio clip encouraging them to eat mindfully, focusing on the look, smell, taste, and texture of the food, hours later they eat fewer cookies than those either eating in silence or listening instead to some neutral audiobook content.

Attending to the sensory qualities of food and our body’s reactions is just one aspect of mindful eating. Mindfulness has been described as a “moment-to-moment awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, in the present moment, as non-reactively, nonjudgmentally, and openheartedly as possible.” Just being aware may not be enough. Practicing mindfulness to deal with cravings is said to involve three skills: awareness, the ability to monitor one’s cravings; acceptance, the ability to refrain from judging yourself; and then something called “disidentification,’’ or cognitive defusion, the ability to separate oneself from your cravings.

When we are struck with a craving, a typical reaction is instead what’s called cognitive restructuring: a psychological term for challenging your thoughts and replacing them with alternative thoughts. For example, if you’re hit with the thought “I need to eat some chocolate,” instead of just reaching for a candy bar, a restructuring response might be, “No, I don’t; I can have something healthier instead.” This rarely works. More than a hundred self-identified chocolate cravers were randomized to an hour of cognitive restructuring instruction, and then given a bag of chocolates to carry around with them for a week to see how well they could resist the temptation. And, they didn’t do much better than the control group that tried it after no instruction at all.

In contrast to cognitive restructuring, the mindful eating approach called cognitive defusion involves teaching people to defuse their thoughts as “merely thoughts,” placing mental distance between themselves and their cravings. A defusion response to the thought “I need to eat some chocolate” would involve simply observing the thought (“‘I notice I’m having the thought that I need to eat some chocolate”), and thanking one’s mind for the thought (“Thanks, mind.”). A “mindbus” metaphor is used, in which people are taught to imagine themselves as the driver of a bus, and their thoughts as mere passengers. You visualize yourself taking control and being like, “Thanks for the feedbacks, folks, but this is my bus,” as you stop the bus and let the negative passengers off.

Cognitive defusion was tested head-to-head against cognitive restructuring in the same chocolate experiment, and those that got an hour of defusion instruction had three times greater odds of remaining “chocolate abstinent” in the face of a week of constant temptation. Then, defusion was put up against acceptance: instructing people to observe a thought or feeling, accept its presence, and build up a degree of tolerance for uncomfortable feelings. Study subjects were randomized to less than a half-hour of coaching on defusion, acceptance, or a control group that spent the time learning a muscle relaxation technique. They were then asked to carry a bag of chocolate candy around for five days untouched. The acceptance group failed to beat out the control group, but the defusion group did. Of all the mindfulness skills, cognitive defusion appears to be the most effective––a simple and efficient approach to manage food cravings.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Motion graphics by Avo Media

Doctor's Note

I talk more about mindfulness in the next video, The Risks and Benefits of Mindfulness for Weight Loss.

For more weight-loss tips, check out How Not to Diet from your local public library.

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