Exposure to Nature Could Help Fight Junk Food Cravings

A new study suggests a link between being exposed to greenery and reduced cravings for alcohol, cigarettes and junk food.

The report, published in the journal Health & Place, is the first to investigate the possible relationships between exposure to nature, cravings and negative emotions. Researchers at the University of Plymouth's School of Psychology surveyed 149 respondents ages 21 to 65 about the proportion of green space in their neighborhood, the presence of green views from their home, their access to a garden and how often they used public green spaces.

The study also asked questions about experiences with depression and anxiety, as well as cravings for things like caffeine, chocolate, alcohol and nicotine. Participants rated the intensity, imagery, and intrusiveness of their cravings on an 11-point scale.

A new study out of England suggests exposure to green spaces can help fight cravings for junk food. Getty Images

Researchers found that the presence of visible green space contributed to decreased cravings. The effect was particularly noticeable when more than 25 percent of a respondent's view was greenery.

Previous scholarship has dealt mostly with exercise in nature: A 2015 study out of the University of Michigan found that 90-minute group nature walks were effective at combatting depression and other mood disorders.

But for people who struggle with accessibility or don't have time for a 90-minute walk, this new study suggests just looking out a window at a tree can help fight off a bad habit. It could impact public health programs and encourage planning for access to green spaces.

"It has been known for some time that being outdoors in nature is linked to a person's wellbeing," lead author Leanne Martin said in a statement. "But for there to be a similar association with cravings from simply being able to see green spaces adds a new dimension to previous research."

Dr. Sabine Pahl, a professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth, calls Martin's work "a promising first step."

"Craving contributes to a variety of health-damaging behaviors such as smoking, excessive drinking and unhealthy eating," said Pahl. "In turn, these can contribute to some of the greatest global health challenges of our time, including cancer, obesity and diabetes."

Martin's work is part of a growing field of study known as ecotherapy, which, according to the National Institute of Health, addresses human health "in the context of the health of the Earth and its natural ecosystems," examining how people and nature can interact to each others' benefit.

A 2018 study from Denmark's Aarhus University, for example, found that having access to green spaces throughout childhood decreased a person's risk of developing mental health problems as an adult.