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Guided Imagery Short-Circuits Food Cravings

31 Mar

Researchers from Plymouth University in the UK tested Elaborated Intrustion Theory (EI), - the idea that food cravings happen when an involuntary thought about an appealing food (generated either by seeing it, smelling it or some other external prompt; or by internal sensations of hunger, anxiety, fatigue, etc) gets elaborated by strong, multisensory and inherently rewarding "mental images" of that food – the way it looks, tastes, smells, feels and even sounds – wonderfully described as a kind of imaginary relish that produces a form of exquisite torture.

By the same token, the theory proposes that cravings can be weakened or short-circuited by deliberately interrupting or blocking the elaborative imagery, with a competing mental activity or imagery. Indeed, research has found that imagery techniques such as body scanning and guided imagery will reduce the occurrence of food thoughts.

This study took it one step further and tested whether these techniques could also reduce food cravings. Participants were asked to abstain from food overnight, and then to carry out 10 minutes of body scanning, guided imagery, or a control activity..

They rated their cravings at 10 points during the task on a single item measure, and before and after the task, using the Craving Experience Questionnaire. While cravings rose during the task for the mind wandering group, neither the guided imagery group nor the body scanning group showed an increase.

These effects did not show on the CEQ, suggesting that they may only be present during the competing task. This needs further study.

However, as these techniques are simple, unobtrusive, and require no devices nor materials, brief guided imagery strategies might be a useful addition to weight loss programs that address cravings..

Citation: Hamilton J1, Fawson S, May J, Andrade J, Kavanagh DJ. Brief guided imagery and body scanning interventions reduce food cravings. Appetite. 2013 Dec;71:158-62. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.08.005. Epub 2013 Aug 17.

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Belleruth Naparstek

Psychotherapist, author and guided imagery pioneer Belleruth Naparstek is the creator of the popular Health Journeys guided imagery audio series. Her latest book on imagery and posttraumatic stress, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal (Bantam Dell), won the Spirituality & Health Top 50 Books Award.