Women and Chocolate

Think you’re addicted to dark, smooth, and sweet? You're not alone.

Posted Oct 23, 2014

Chocolate is a feel-good food.

You know how it goes: You’re sitting at your desk or on the couch, and you suddenly get a craving for something chocolate. From past experience, you know that if you don’t satisfy the craving, it will soon consume you and you won’t be able to think about anything else until you get what you want.

So why fight it? Food cravings aren’t fully understood, but there are certainly psychological benefits to “giving in,” as long as you don’t overdo it.  The types of foods we tend to crave can lift our spirits, calm our nerves and stabilize our moods. That’s something health foods ordinarily don’t do as well. Rare is the report that women (or men, for that matter) have cravings for stir-fried tofu or a steamed artichoke!

Entire books have been written about the subject of women and chocolate cravings, surveys have shown that chocolate is the most craved food among American women, and researchers have found that comfort foods like chocolate can supply nutrients that keep a woman’s hormonal system functioning properly and brain chemicals in balance.

Premenstrual cravings are common in women and, physiologically, we know that levels of the “feel good” brain chemical serotonin are low at this stage of the cycle. Chocolate and other fatty, carbohydrate-rich foods trigger the production of more serotonin. Researchers also say that indulging in sweet and fatty foods also triggers the release of endorphins, brain chemicals that help you feel calm.  Endorphins are responsible for the “high” you might feel when you exercise vigorously, fall in love or eat chocolate.

If you frequently indulge in chocolate but are also in control of your weight and health, that doesn’t sound like a problem. But if your chocolate cravings are out of control, causing you to overindulge, there may be cause for concern. Cravings become a problem if they lead you to overeat on a regular basis. If you are an emotional eater, and your cravings lead to binge eating or weight gain, you might try to control them.

You can try to distract yourself until the urge goes away, but that doesn’t work for everyone or every time you get a craving. Exercise releases the same “feel good” brain chemicals as chocolate, so you could run to the gym, but that’s not always convenient. If your cravings are due to real hunger, you might be able to reduce their frequency by making sure you eat three full, balanced, meals every day within four hours of each other and supplementing your meals with planned snacks. Consistently eating in this traditional way ensures you get enough calories evenly spaced throughout the day so you don’t get hungry and helps your blood sugar levels remain steady.

A recent study published by psychologists at McGill University in Montreal, focusing on mindfulness techniques and chocolate cravings, found that the mindfulness skill most effective at reducing cravings is one known as disidentification. Disidentification involves observing yourself from something of a distance, more objectively, as others would observe you, and without judgment. You simply observe the facts, and instead of telling yourself “I am stressed (sad, lonely, angry) ” you say to yourself, “I feel stressed” (sad, lonely, angry). The idea is to recognize that you are not defined by your feelings, you simply have feelings that are just one small part of who you are. And while you, the person, stay the same, your feelings are fleeting; they will pass.

With mindfulness training that focuses on disidentification, you learn to stop identifying yourself by your feelings. You learn to separate who you are as a person from how you feel. And by mastering this technique, you may be able to stop feeding your feelings.

Mindfulness techniques such as disidentification can be taught by a mental health professional, spiritual guide, certified dietitian/nutritionist, or even a yoga teacher or athletic coach with proper training. Look for someone who models mindfulness in his or her own life, is a good teacher, and is a good match for you on a personal level; if possible, get a referral from someone you trust. Mindfulness techniques take time and require patience both to learn and to teach.

Reference:

Lacaille J, Ly J, Zacchia N, Bourkas S, Glaser E,  Knauper B. “The effects of three mindfulness skills on chocolate cravings.” Appetite. 2014 May;76:101-12. Doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2014.01.072. Epub 2014 Feb 3

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