More threads by HA


Eating small daily doses can prevent bingeing

Jennifer Sygo, National Post
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

As I sign off with my last column of 2007, I figure it is the right time of year to devote a bit of column space to the subtleties of everyone's (well, most people's) favourite sweet.


This isn't easy to explain. When it comes to chocolate, there seem to be many potential factors at play. Specifically, both the sugar and fat content of chocolate exert a strong effect on cravings, particularly when it comes to milk chocolate. Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago have proposed that chocolate is so enjoyable because the sugar and fats are both considered "primary enforcers," meaning stimuli that we enjoy right from birth. That means it doesn't require any time, patience or behaviour adaptation at all to like chocolate, unlike vegetables or other relatively bitter foods.

In addition to satisfying sensory cravings, it also seems that the pleasure of eating chocolate can exert a very real effect on the brain. Specifically, the brain centres that are stimulated by eating chocolate as a reward are the same ones that are stimulated by cocaine use. By that logic, you might argue that chocolate exerts a drug-like effect on us, possibly explaining why some individuals say they feel an addiction to the sweet.


Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to end well. There are quite a few studies on the effects of chocolate denial, and it looks to be quite clear: The more we consciously try to deny ourselves, the more we tend to overeat it when we finally give in to temptation. Surprisingly, the same results have been produced in both women and men. So, it really may come down to a guilt complex, especially for chronic dieters.


Yes, there is some truth to this notion. To be more specific, however, it's the cocoa that provides the value. Cocoa, which is derived from the bean of the cacao tree, is rich in flavonoids, biological compounds that possess various health benefits, and can be found in foods ranging from apples to green tea and red wine.

Like all flavonoids, cocoa acts as an antioxidant, meaning that it seems to reverse cellular damage caused by age, pollution and other environmental factors. It also seems to help control blood pressure, and may reduce the risk of heart disease, as well.

The closer you get to the pure form of cocoa, the more benefits you derive. By comparison, most highly-processed chocolate, including milk chocolate, offers little more than an expanded waistline. White chocolate has even less nutritional value. Unfortunately, the added sugar and fat that comes with all chocolate is definitely not great for your health, and too much of even the best chocolate will add weight that will easily undo the benefits gained from the flavonoids.


When reading ingredient lists, look for brands of chocolate that list cocoa solids or cocoa mass first, with sugar following somewhere down the list. As a percentage, try 70% dark chocolate, which is quite enjoyable (especially for those who don't have the sweetest of sweet tooths), while still retaining the benefits of the relatively high cocoa content. On the other hand, real sourpusses can try their hand at 90%-plus chocolate -- but remember, you were warned!


The strategy that I will often use with clients, particularly those who feel a lot of guilt and/or addiction when it comes to eating chocolate, is to actually plan for a small daily dose of dark chocolate (usually about one oz., or about half of a typical 50 g bar), preferably consumed as guilt-free as possible. In other words, instead of viewing the consumption of chocolate as a sign of weakness, try to imagine that chocolate (preferably dark) is a part of your usual daily diet. It's amazing how well this relatively easy strategy can work--but I really only encourage this for individuals who feel they are addicted to chocolate, or tend to eat it in binges. If you are indifferent to chocolate, or don't mind going for prolonged periods without it, then it's perfectly fine to put off your next indulgence.

On the other hand, as I said in my previous column on holiday eating, it's also important to try not to reinforce the sugar and fat cravings by eating multiple sweets every single day. So if you love chocolate, try to save it for an after-dinner treat, rather than as a midday pick-me-up. If you need chocolate in the afternoon, that may be a sign that you need to plan your meal and snack timing better, get more sleep, or learn to take breaks from your work. Saving your chocolate for night -- as long as you're not too sensitive to the relatively small dose of caffeine--prevents you from relying on it as an energy source when you're tired or hungry throughout your busy day. - Jennifer Sygo is a dietitian in private practice at Cleveland Clinic Canada (clevelandcliniccanada. com), which offers executive physicals, prevention and wellness counselling and personal health care management in Toronto.
Replying is not possible. This forum is only available as an archive.