Desperate cravings for food can be sated by asking a person simply to imagine the smell of eucalyptus, Australian research shows.
The findings could have implications for drug and alcohol addiction and help in treating eating disorders such as bulimia.
In the latest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, psychology researcher Dr Eva Kemps and colleague Dr Marika Tiggeman examine the psychology of food cravings.
Kemps, who is from Adelaide's Flinders University says food cravings have been documented as far back as the late 17th century.
She says while most people will experience a food craving on occasion, these are not necessarily pathological.
"However, like cravings for cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine or drugs they can pose significant health risks for some individuals," she says.
"Food cravings have been shown to trigger binge-eating episodes, which in turn contribute to both obesity and disordered eating, especially bulimia nervosa."
Kemps says a craving is notable for the specificity of the desire.
"It's more than just a desire for chocolate," she says. "It is very, very specific … it might be one particular type of chocolate."
"People who have problematic cravings, find these cravings very debilitating in their day to day functioning."
In a series of experiments, Kemp and Tiggeman induced chocolate cravings in participants and then asked them to perform a series of tasks.
She says people with the induced craving demonstrated slower reaction times, recalled fewer words and took longer to complete a mathematical task.
"When you are having a craving you are experiencing very vivid and clear mental imagery," Kemp says.
"People's mental capacity is limited in size, so if you are using it up to conjure up images of food, it can't be used for something else," she says.
But Kemp says this effect can also be used to reduce craving sensations.
"On the flip side when we got them to do another task, such as imagining the smell of eucalyptus they could not maintain the craving," says Kemps.
"Engaging in a simple visual task seems to hold real promise as a method for curbing food cravings."
Smoking and alcohol
Kemp says like people with food cravings, people craving alcohol and cigarettes also report strong visual and sensory imagery during the craving process.
"Smokers experience the smell of the cigarette and that sort of thing," she says.
Kemps says the next step is to use the results to see if the findings can help people that have debilitating cravings.
"A further and related challenge will be to determine whether the proposed craving-reduction mechanism can actually modify eating behavior - in other words, reduce food intake."