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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

You are not your craving -- and neither is the chocolate

A new study by Canadian researchers says that mindfulness can reduce chocolate cravings.

Lead study author Julien Lacaille, a psychologist at McGill University in Quebec, told Reuters that practicing mindfulness meditation, which emphasizes identifying and distancing oneself from certain thoughts -- without judging them -- weakened chocolate cravings among people with a self-declared sweet tooth.

It's an interesting study for reasons that go beyond simply decreasing food cravings. The researchers worked with almost 200 subjects -- who admitted they were prone to strong cravings for chocolate and wanted to diminish them -- to determine which aspect of mindfulness had the greatest effect. 

Participants were divided into five groups, four of which received training in mindfulness meditation techniques and were told to practice specific ones when they craved chocolate over a two-week period. Those in the fifth group were told to distract themselves when craving arose.

The researchers focused on three distinct aspects of mindfulness meditation: Awareness (simply noticing one's thoughts); acceptance (not passing judgment on one's thoughts), and disidentification (seeing thoughts as separate from oneself.) Participants were assessed before and after the study to determine how effectively they practiced the techniques.

After two weeks, participants were given a piece of chocolate to unwrap and touch for one minute; after it was taken away, they rated their craving. Those trained in disidentification reported less-intense cravings, the study found. Further analysis showed that the specific craving for chocolate, as well as the general state of craving, was reduced for who learned to see cravings as thoughts.

While that's an interesting breakdown of skills, it doesn't suggest to me that you should train only in recognizing thoughts. Awareness and acceptance are keys to being able to do that skillfully. Without first seeing that the thought exists, you can't recognize it as a thought. If you don't accept it but try to push it away or deny it, you're still attached.

Several Buddhist teachers, including Tara Brach and Sharon Salzberg, teach a process with the acronym RAIN -- Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Non-attachment (which equates to disidentification).

The extra step -- Investigate -- refers to giving yourself a chance to explore the thought: Is it habitual? When does it arise? How does it feel in the body? What does chocolate represent -- an indulgence, a reward, a hug?

It's also important to note that there's nothing wrong with the chocolate -- it's our attachment to it that may benefit from modification. As long as you know that the chocolate won't bring lasting happiness -- and enough of it over time may lead to added pounds -- go ahead and enjoy it in the moment.