Whether you’re trying to give up cheesecake, cigarettes or Cabernet Sauvignon, one thing you won’t be a stranger to is cravings.

Cravings are described as a motivational state where you feel compelled to find and consume a particular substance, for instance chocolate, which is arguably the most commonly craved food.

Yet the more you try to put the object of your desire out of your mind, the more you can’t stop thinking about it. And so the stronger your craving gets, until you just have to give in and satisfy it.

Trying to stop yourself from thinking about the thing you’re craving may seem like the right thing to do. But thinking about or doing something else to take your mind off it is a far more powerful tool in the fight against cravings.

In other words, if you want to manage or even beat your cravings, one of the best things you can do is to distract yourself.

The art of distraction

Distraction isn’t generally considered as something beneficial. You certainly don’t want to be distracted when you’re driving, operating heavy machinery or performing a complicated surgical procedure. Distraction can also be used to help you avoid doing something you’re not looking forward to, such as checking your emails and social media when there’s a tricky or boring task to carry out at the office.

But distraction can be a healthy action too. In this context distraction isn’t about suppressing your cravings. It’s not about denying yourself something. It’s when you redirect your thoughts from one thing to another, either a mental or physical activity – preferably one you have to devote your full attention to. You’re not saying ‘no’ to yourself, you’re just trying to delay saying ‘yes’.

And when you consider that research suggests cravings become weaker within about 15 minutes, all you have to do is distract yourself for a short amount of time. You could, for instance, try doing one of the following…

  • Phone a friend or talk to a work colleague
  • Write an entry in your diary
  • Go for a walk
  • Read a chapter or two of an absorbing book
  • Do some push-ups/skip/dance
  • Practice meditation

… or indeed anything that directs your thoughts away from the thing you’re craving.

Scientific evidence

Scientists have studied the idea of distraction to find out whether it could be an effective strategy to manage cravings.

One study from Plymouth University has shown that you only have to play the computer game Tetris for 3 minutes before your cravings for food start to diminish. The same technique works for other types of craving too.

Another experiment carried out by experts at McGill University in the USA looked at how imagination can help when you’re trying to curb food cravings. The researchers asked one group of volunteers to imagine they were doing something they enjoy as vividly as possible whenever they had cravings over a 4-day period. Meanwhile, another group simply had to think about their intention to control their cravings or recite the alphabet backwards.

The results of the study showed those who imagined doing something pleasant had significantly reduced cravings compared to the other groups at the end of the study period.

A similar idea has been tested by researchers at Queen Mary’s University of London, who tested an app designed to help with food cravings. Volunteers were asked to use the app whenever they felt a craving. By pressing a button on the app they received an instruction to imagine something – a forest, for instance. The results showed significant reductions in overall snacking in those using the app, as well as reductions in unhealthy snacking.

Meanwhile, other experts believe physical distraction is powerful too. Austrian researchers worked with overweight people who ate chocolate or other sweets every day. They asked some of the volunteers to go for a brisk 15-minute walk after taking a mental test designed to put them under stress – a situation that often makes people turn to comfort food – while the rest were told to sit quietly for the same amount of time. At the end of the study, the volunteers who had taken the 15-minute walk were found to have much lower cravings for chocolate than those who sat still.

So next time you start craving something, why not try distracting yourself for 15 minutes. You never know, it could work for you too.

For tips, recipes, and resources to help you promote your physical wellbeing, visit our physical wellbeing microsite.

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