The Reduction of Food Cravings and the Elaborated-Intrusion Theory of Desire

Author: Sophie Schumacher

Schumacher, Sophie, 2018 The Reduction of Food Cravings and the Elaborated-Intrusion Theory of Desire, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Food cravings are a strong desire to consume a specific food. They are frequently reported by individuals who are overweight or obese, and are thought to contribute to the over-consumption of high calorie foods. Food cravings have also been linked to binge eating and other forms of disordered eating. Therefore, there is a need to develop and test interventions to reduce food cravings and craving-related consumption. The Elaborated-Intrusion Theory of Desire (Kavanagh, Andrade, & May, 2005) proposes that cravings are a two stage process, by which initial intrusions (stage one) are elaborated with vivid, multi-sensory imagery (stage two). The overarching aim of the present thesis was to investigate interventions for reducing food cravings within the framework of the Elaborated-Intrusion Theory.

The thesis contains 4 empirical studies (two published, two under review). Study 1 was a systematic literature review, which evaluated the efficacy of existing psychological interventions for reducing food cravings. Overall, imagery-based techniques were most effective at reducing food cravings. Mindfulness techniques also showed promise, particularly if conducted over several sessions.

Study 2 investigated the role of craving-related thoughts and images in predicting craving intensity and craving-related consumption in an online study of Australian and American women. The results showed that craving-related images were more important in predicting craving intensity than craving-related thoughts. However, neither craving-related thoughts nor images predicted craving-related consumption, although craving intensity did.

Studies 3 and 4 were laboratory-based experiments which investigated whether cognitive defusion and guided imagery could reduce the underlying mechanisms they are theoretically proposed to target, namely craving-related thoughts and images, respectively. Study 3 recruited a sample of young women, and Study 4 a sample of regular chocolate cravers. Cognitive defusion reduced both the intrusiveness of craving-related thoughts and the vividness of craving-related imagery, suggesting that targeting the initial thought stage of the craving process may prevent elaboration from occurring. Guided imagery only reduced the vividness of imagery in chocolate cravers. Both techniques reduced craving intensity, but neither reduced craving-related consumption.

Finally, Study 5 sought to investigate whether cognitive defusion and guided imagery could reduce naturalistic food cravings and related consumption in the field. The study was conducted over a two-week period consisting of a 7-day baseline and a 7-day intervention. The results showed that cognitive defusion and guided imagery were equally effective in reducing craving intensity and related consumption. Both techniques reduced the number of craving-related calories consumed across the intervention week. This suggests that the reduction in craving-related calories could potentially accumulate to a meaningful reduction in consumption across weeks and months.

Overall, the thesis contributed to our understanding of craving-related thoughts and images and their involvement in the food craving process. The thesis provided good evidence for both cognitive defusion and guided imagery as effective, brief, and easy-to-use techniques for reducing both craving intensity, and craving-related consumption in the field. The results in the present thesis support the predictions of the Elaborated-Intrusion Theory, and lend themselves to practical applications for dealing with problematic cravings in everyday life.

Keywords: food cravings, elaborated-intrusion theory, eating, psychology

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2018
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Eva Kemps