You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes well you just might find. You get what you need. You have probably heard this Rolling Stones song before, but have you ever taken the time to reflect on its meaning? Mick Jagger conveys through these lyrics the message that what we want and what we need are two distinct matters. However as a result of living in a society saturated by advertisements and the desire for immediate gratification, we have come to see these two matters as one and the same. The repercussions of this are severe, affecting our physical, mental and financial wellbeing. Of most concern is the detrimental effect this mindset may have on our food choices and overall diets.
You may need lunch, but do you need to take that midnight drive to McDonalds because you’ve had a rough week so you deserve it? No. Do you need that Tim Horton’s donut you suddenly crave when pulling an all-nighter before your 9am calculus exam? No. Do you need that Häagen Dazs tub of ice cream after your boyfriend of two years leaves you for your best friend? No. (Well this may be the one exception). Unfortunately for many of us (myself included) making this type of distinction is difficult, if not impossible. Acting on this distinction is even more difficult, especially for individuals (such as myself) who use food to cope with stress. Treating yourself once in a while to a chocolate bar is not detrimental to your health, however giving into these cravings on a consistent basis may lead to weight gain. In extreme cases, consistently ‘giving in’ to these cravings may lead to obesity.
The repercussions of a poor diet extend far beyond simply weight gain: previous literature has identified an association between obesity and mental health disorders, specifically depression. In a study conducted in the Netherlands, scientists discovered that obese individuals have a 55% increased risk of developing depression in comparison to individuals who are not obese (Luppino, de Wit, Bouvy, Stijnen, Cuijpers, Penninx, & Zitman, 2010). Most of us are aware of the association that exists between what we eat and how we feel, yet we seldom apply this knowledge to our own lives. A first step towards becoming more ‘mindful’ when it comes to our eating habits is learning how to distinguish the food our body needs from the food our body wants. By making this distinction, we may potentially be able to diminish the frequency with which we ‘give in’ to the food and beverage cravings we experience.
|The game 'Tetris'|
Scientists Skorka-Brown, Andrade, and May from Pylmouth University in England (2014) were interested in discovering techniques that may help individuals be more mindful and in control of what they eat. Specifically, these scientists were interested in seeing if playing the computer game ‘Tetris’ for three minutes when one experiences a craving helps reduce the intensity of the craving. In order to investigate this, they conducted a study in which participants were asked to report the food and/or beverage cravings they were currently experiencing. Half of the participants were then randomly assigned to play Tetris for three minutes. The other half of the participants were also instructed to play Tetris for three minutes, however it (purposely) never loaded on their computer screens. Instead, these participants sat facing what appeared to be a ‘frozen’ computer screen for three minutes. Following this, participants were again asked to report the cravings they were currently experiencing. From the participants who reported a craving at the beginning of the study, those who played Tetris reported significantly less intense cravings at the end of the study than those who did not play Tetris.
You might be thinking why Tetris of all games???
Scientists have found that humans may not be able to play Tetris and think about what they're craving at the same time. Here's why: Playing Tetris is a 'visual activity' and is said to activate the same region in our brain that is activated to produce and maintain food/beverage cravings, which is also a 'visual activity'. The region of our brain that is activated during these 'visual activities' is referred to as our 'visuospatial sketchpad'. What is interesting about this region of our brain is that it can only perform one 'visual activity' at a time, such as maintaining a craving or playing Tetris. Because of this, playing Tetris when we are experiencing a craving is said to 'cancel out', or at the very least diminish the intensity of our craving. Simply put, something’s gotta give.
Tetris eh? Who would have thought it could help us practice mindful eating! As intriguing as this finding is, it is important to keep in mind that because playing Tetris was only found to be associated with diminishing the intensity of food/beverage cravings, it is not guaranteed that it will work. Nonetheless it is worth the try! So the next time you are craving that chocolate bar, or McDonald's fries, why not play Tetris for even as little as three minutes before you make the decision to ‘cave in’ to your craving. Who knows…it might just work!
Luppino, F. S., de Wit, L. M., Bouvy, P. F., Stijnen, T., Cuijpers, P., Penninx, B. W., & Zitman, F. G. (2010). Overweight, obesity, and depression: a systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Archives of general psychiatry, 67(3), 220-229.
Skorka-Brown, J., Andrade, J., & May, J. (2014). Playing ‘Tetris’ reduces the strength, frequency and vividness of naturally occurring cravings. Appetite, 76, 161-165.