You've probably heard that old joke, "I'm on the see food diet; I see food and I eat it." I know, very lame, but a new study shows there's some real truth to it! Australian researchers found that the strength of food cravings is linked to how vividly people imagine food, and the cravings are seriously distracting. In one experiment, volunteers who were craving chocolate and took longer to solve math problems than non-cravers and weren't able to recall as much info. In a nutshell, the theory is that as we imagine a specific food, much of our brainpower becomes focused on that food, to the point of interfering with other tasks.
So what can you do? In one trial volunteers struggling with cravings were asked to form other images in their minds, like a rainbow, or recall non-food smells, such as eucalyptus - and it helped. Another group watched a flickering pattern of black and white dots on a monitor, and after viewing it they reported a decrease in the intensity of their food cravings.
While this approach may not work for everyone, the concept and research is certainly intriguing. In my private practice I have used mental imagery to help clients eat with awareness (I also use it myself). When you have "monkey mind" - your mind jumps from thought to thought, like a monkey jumping from tree to tree - it's really difficult to tune into hunger and fullness, how fast you're eating, or even the taste of your meal. Deep breathing and imagery (recalling the scenery, colors, sounds and smells of the most relaxing place you've ever been) can help clear your mind so you can reconnect with your body.
Based on my positive experience with this approach, I can see why consciously focusing on replacing thoughts of cupcakes or pizza with non-food images and smells could be very effective.