Celebration, mindfulness and small pieces – the secret to a happy life with chocolate.
As I’m writing this, I may or may not have just already eaten a whole chocolate bar. (Oops...) Chocolate seems to have this special influence on me – whenever, wherever, if someone offers me chocolate, it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll turn it down. For some however, chocolate is a nightmare since it makes that little voice in your head say “Go ahead, just one small piece won’t hurt you!”, after which they end up indulging themselves with much more chocolate than just that one piece. Especially when you want to shed those extra pounds, it can be very difficult to resist that delicious substance when you’re always craving it!
So what is it that chocolate does to us? First of all, there’s a difference between people that have high cravings and people with low cravings for chocolate. People that crave chocolate a lot seem to be more distracted by merely images of chocolate! In contrast, people with low cravings aren’t as distracted at all. Similarly, when high cravers are faced with pictures of chocolate, they seem to enjoy more pleasure and arousal but less control than people with low cravings. What’s more, researchers have demonstrated that it seems that certain parts of the brain are important in determining whether one craves chocolate or not. The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is involved in the cognitive processing of decision-making, plays a role in the ‘unrestrained appetitive responses to chocolate’ in people that crave chocolate. Likewise, it seems that low cravers have cognitive control mechanisms that exercise top-down influence when they try to suppress the desire to eat chocolate.
I often find myself struggling with myself: should I eat the chocolate, shouldn’t I? A part of me wants it, but at the same time I don’t. This probably doesn’t sound unfamiliar to most people. Remarkably, there’s actual proof of this motivational conflict that can be found particularly in high cravers. When high cravers are presented with just images of chocolate their cardiac defence, which usually is activated in the presence of a threat, is now inhibited representing the “Yes, chocolate!” response. But on the other hand, the body responses in an aversive way to the chocolate by potentiating the startle reflex.
But does chocolate actually improve our mood? I always feel quite happy when I finally eat some chocolate, but is that really the case? Some researchers have found that it’s a matter of palatable (tasty) food. Whether that’s chocolate or something else, a small amount of palatable food will improve your mood. Others have found that indeed your mood will be improved, but - and this is the most important part – it’s short-lived. So yes, in the beginning it’s most likely that you’ll feel amazing, however, soon you won’t feel so great anymore or return to the same state as you were before. Besides, when chocolate is consumed as comfort food or as emotional eating, your bad mood will in the end actually be prolonged rather than improved.
And now what? Well, first of all it’s important to associate chocolate with celebration rather than with guilt. It has been demonstrated that guilt can lead to feelings of loss of control and helplessness. People that do associate food with guilt (e.g. chocolate), have worse eating habits and they perceive to have lower levels of behavioural control over eating healthily when they experience stress. Additionally, mood regulation reasons will play a much bigger role for choosing their food. But, choosing food for mood regulation is seen as a ‘maladaptive emotion regulation strategy affecting eating behaviours, and ultimately weight’. Also, these people won’t necessarily have more positive attitudes towards eating healthy. So it’s better when you think about chocolate to associate it with celebration, and not guilt since associations with guilt can lead to more struggles with losing weight.
Craving chocolate isn’t necessarily problematic. However, cravings in general can lead to weight gain through binge eating and snacking. Additionally, they’re associated with guilt, bulimia, decreased quality of life, depression and it seems that they harm cognitive performance. One way to reduce your chocolate cravings is through mindfulness, which is a form of attention focusing that modulates the experience of negative effect. Some researchers have investigated which mindfulness strategy would work the best, and according to them disidentification is the best strategy. You disidentify when you’re able to separate yourself from the thoughts that you have about the cravings. So whenever you’re craving chocolate, try to step back from your thoughts about the chocolate, and try to detach yourself from your feelings about the craving.
So next time when you’re craving chocolate, try to eat small pieces and know that large amounts won’t make you feel better! Also, use chocolate to celebrate, don’t feel guilty about it and be satisfied with you eating it. Finally, in order to prevent you from craving chocolate all the time, try mindfulness. Although I wish I’d had known all of this before I ate the whole chocolate bar, I’ll try not to feel guilty and start practicing mindfulness for the next time!
Note: When you read this and thought, “luckily I don’t like chocolate”, first of all are you sure?! And secondly, mindfulness will also work for your crisps cravings, your cheese cravings, your pizza cravings, your... well I think you get the idea.
This blog was written as an assignment for the course Cognitive Psychology: Rationality and emotions in human behaviour at Leiden University College The Hague