I’d like to think I have good willpower when it comes to certain foods. I’m not one of those people who can’t keep chips in the pantry or ice cream in the freezer out of fear that I’ll devour the whole pack or tub by simply knowing they’re in reach. But I do understand that for some people, the temptation is very very real. After all, food cravings are no joke, and it’s not just pregnant women who experience them. But are food cravings just a case of mind over matter? How much control do we really have when it comes to ignoring (or giving in to) food cravings?
This is exactly what a group of psychologists from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) set out to discover. According to the new research, published in the journal Psychological Science, what they found is that it all might come down to trying to do too many things at once.
The idea here is that we all have a certain amount of ‘control resources’ that help us say no to temptation, but when those resources are compromised or maxed out, say, through taking on an additional task, we can find it near impossible to ignore reward signals.
How exactly did researchers come to this conclusion?
Participants in the study were instructed to look at various shapes on a screen. They were then asked to concentrate only on the diamond shape and ignore the colourful circle which acted as the “reward” distractor. By successfully doing so, they would earn money.
The participants were then asked to do this same task again but in the second round, were asked to memorise a set of numbers before attempting the activity. In essence, this meant that they had less left in their ‘control resource’ bank. Through tracking their eye movements, researchers found that under “high memory load”, participants looked at the coloured circle about 50% of the time, even though it meant less money for them.
So, what does this mean in terms of managing cravings and maintaining healthy habits? It could be gathered that the more we do or take on, the more likely we are to give in to temptation, even though we’re well aware that something may not be good for us.
Need help figuring what your cravings really mean? We consult a dietitian, here.