Need another excuse to sneak in a game (or five) of Candy Crush? As it turns out, playing a few video games might help you ward off a craving.
It worked for the people who took part in a study published in the journal Appetite. The researchers found that the subjects who played a game of Tetris saw a 24 percent drop in their cravings—a stark contrast to the people in the study who sat in front of a computer screen that failed to load.
How gaming may stop cravings
“When your mind is focused on the game, you can’t create and sustain the mental images that underpin the craving, so the craving doesn't develop,” says Jackie Andrade, PhD, one of the study authors and a professor of psychology at Plymouth University in Plymouth, England. “If a craving has already begun, Tetris will suck the mental energy from it.”
You see, cravings are more than just a nagging urge to eat a bowl of ice cream or a piece of cheesecake—they can be a powerful longing that can overwhelm most of your senses. For example, she says, when you feel a hankering for chocolate, you can see its rich color, taste its sugary, creamy texture, and feel it melting on your tongue—all of which are sensations that cause you to feel the pleasure of eating chocolate in the moment.
The pleasure, however, is short-lived. Sooner or later, your body realizes that although you may be drooling, you are not, in fact, eating chocolate. Add those two thoughts together, and you’re staring down a powerful craving.
Enter: games that require your undivided attention. “Games like Tetris require the same mental resources that we need for craving imagery,” says Andrade. “We have limited resources, so we can’t do both at once. We cannot play Tetris and crave food at the same time.”
Other games can work, too, especially ones that are visually interesting, require quick thinking, and will recruit your motor skills.
If (and when) cravings hit
“If you’re cutting calories with the expectation of losing weight, you can expect to be hungry and have cravings,” says Alicia Romano, RD, LDN, a clinical registered dietitian at the Frances Stern Nutrition Center at Tufts Medical Center. “And making drastic changes at once will often heighten the cravings for your favorite foods.”
Romano suggests that people prepare for these cravings in advance by making a list of three to five activities they enjoy—whether that’s walking, knitting, coloring, or something else. “When you think about food, switch to one of these enjoyable activities instead,” she says. Even better: Try a non-sedentary activity, like biking or jogging. “Engaging in exercise can also be an adequate distraction from cravings,” she says.
Whatever method you choose, you don't have to devote hours of your day to it. You just need a few minutes until the craving subsides.
Romano adds that playing a game like Candy Crush could be a good option if it allows you a distraction or a “mental competition” from your visual craving.
But will Candy Crush's rows of brightly colored candies interfere with warding off a craving? Andrade, for her part, doesn’t think the game will stimulate your sweet tooth. “My guess is that…the fast pace would be enough to stop you from mentally linking the ‘sweets’ in the game to actual sweets that you might otherwise crave,” she says. But she says that she has not tested this premise.
Works for us: We’ll buy another five lives, please.