Simply Viewing Nature Curbs Cravings
New research shows that looking out your window helps reduce unhealthy cravings
There are days when I’m extremely proud of myself for eating three healthy meals and even making it to the gym!
Of course, around 9 p.m., none of this matters — I’ve remembered that a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked ice cream is in the freezer.
I reassure myself that I’ll only eat half.
Of course, I know this is a lie. I eat the whole pint… I always do.
My complete lack of self-control when it comes to sweet treats might explain why this new research, which explored how the amount of nature in daily life affects unhealthy cravings, ended up catching my eye.
So, what did the study do?
For the first time, researchers from the University of Plymouth in the U.K. investigated how passive viewing of green spaces may impact our harmful cravings. The scientists hypothesized that greenspace is deeply connected to a person’s wellbeing.
Building off of prior research that suggested exercising in nature diminishes cravings, scientists speculated that the positive association between nature and cravings might be present even without the physical activity.
Perhaps it was purely the greenery causing the change in behavior?
The recent study surveyed hundreds of participants to understand their access to greenspace. They were asked if they had a garden (whether personal or communal), views of nature from within their home, and how often they used greenspace.
The researchers also inspected participant’s neighborhoods to evaluate the number of public parks present.
Once the nature side of the survey was taken care of, participants were asked to record their cravings for a week.
In this study, a craving could be anything from food or alcohol to caffeinated drinks or drugs. Each individual picked their own crave-worthy weakness and filled out questionnaires that tracked the frequency and strength of these cravings.
What did they find?
The results pointed scientists towards the importance of having views of nature from within the home and access to a patch of land for gardening. Both these factors were seen to lower the amount and strength of cravings from the wide range of substances selected by participants.
There was no association between cravings and the amount of public greenspace or regular use of that greenspace.
Why does this matter?
This research adds to the growing amount of evidence linking nature to human health.
Studies have already shown that people who regularly visit natural spaces have greater wellbeing and rate themselves as happier the next day. The amount of greenspace within a neighborhood can even be used as an accurate predictor of stress.
It should not be surprising then, that areas with large amounts of greenspace are associated with lower levels of anxiety, stress, and depression even when several confounding factors were taken into account.
Researchers believe the link between nature and wellbeing is mediated through the negative affect, which is a grouping of negative emotions like lethargy, sadness, depression, anxiety, and stress.
It’s been seen that the negative affect, meaning all these distressed emotional states, is really what drives us to have intense cravings.
For example, studies have found that tracking anxiety levels can predict alcoholic craving in heavy drinkers. It follows that low doses of nature, which have been associated with negative emotions like depression, anxiety, and stress could then heavily influence our unhealthy cravings.
You’ve probably experienced this in more benign areas of your life. Like me, you might stop at the grocery store on a particularly bad day to grab that ice cream you’ve been thinking of.
When the kids act like little hellions all day long, you’ll pour yourself a glass of wine and sink into the couch. Such negative emotions seem to lead us right into our bad habits.
What should we do?
Although bingeing your favorite ice cream isn’t great for your health, it’s not a detriment society; however, craving drugs or alcohol can be. Findings from this research, and other similar studies, need to be used to better understand addiction and its treatment.
The results point to simple solutions like adding more greenspace to better take care of our mental health. Large cities should integrate more parks and trees. We need to reconsider what we prioritize when constructing neighborhoods.
As more evidence accrues with each study, it’ll be interesting to watch if this research spurs any change in our healthcare system.