Overcoming Binge Eating: Chocolate as Love

by Marsha Hudnall MS, RDN, CD

Managing binge eating triggers | Impact of dieting Chocolate represents love, whether it be from our significant other, child, parent or just good friend. But for women who struggle with eating and weight, chocolate often represents something else: Binge time. What’s behind this reaction, and what can we do to change it?

Here’s what we’ve learned at Green Mountain working with the women who have come to our women’s healthy weight loss spa over the last four decades.

The Set-Up

As we discuss regularly in our classes at Green Mountain on overcoming binge eating and emotional eating, our behaviors (actions) are a direct result of how we think. And our thinking derives from our attitudes and beliefs.

What do you believe about chocolate? Is it a “fattening” food? Does its sugar content kick off cravings? Are either of these beliefs true?

What’s Fattening?

Thelma Wayler, RD, Green Mountain’s founder, said it over 40 years ago: Food isn’t fattening. It’s how we use the food that determines whether we gain unwanted weight from eating it.

Evidence of that are those friends who seem to eat chocolate whenever they want and still maintain a healthy relationship with it, eating, their weight and their bodies. What’s their secret?

Giving Ourselves Permission to Eat

Permission to have it if we really want it, free of worries about weight, is part of a healthy relationship with all foods, not just chocolate. Use broccoli as an example. For those of us who love it, eating it is a pleasure. We eat it in a way that makes us feel good, thoroughly enjoying the taste, then feeling good after we finish eating, too.

Because it’s so low in calories, we don’t fear unwanted pounds as a result of eating broccoli. So deprivation doesn’t drive us to overeat it. Clearly, our attitudes about the food are playing a role in how we eat it.

Can we see chocolate in the same light?

Much More than Nutrients

Chocolate is good for us, too — especially dark chocolate. It’s rich in flavonoids, or antioxidants, that can help our bodies quell free radicals, to prevent the negative consequences often called “diseases of aging” such as high blood pressure, cholesterol problems, etc.

But more importantly, chocolate is good for our souls. We enjoy it. It makes us feel good, happy.

“Food is one of the greatest pleasures of life. And for many of us, chocolate is one of the greatest pleasures of food!” says Marsha Hudnall, MS, RD, Green Mountain’s program director and owner.

“Whether it’s a neurochemical response or something else, just the fact that chocolate does spur such a feel-good reaction is proof enough that it deserves a place in our lives.”

We don’t have to fear unwanted pounds from eating chocolate, either, when we eat it in a way that takes advantage of benefits for our bodies and our souls.

What If I Can’t Stop Eating It?

If we do eat it, and have a negative response, such as cravings, our decision whether or not to eat it becomes based on that, not on anyone else’s directive as to whether we can have it or whether it’s right for us. It based on our intrinsic connection to food — knowing clearly how it makes us feel – which empowers us to make decisions about whether we really want a food or not.

The caveat here is that we need to be sure that our cravings or other negative responses to chocolate (or any other food we feel challenged to eat without guilt) are not the result of feelings of deprivation, e.g., craving a food because we “know” we can’t have it.

It may help to understand, too, that we can feel deprived even as we eat (and overeat) something if we don’t really let ourselves have it without guilt.

Teasing out the real cause of cravings can take time and sometimes the help of a professional such as a registered dietitian or psychologist skilled in working with disordered eating.

Chocolate as a Gift of Love to Ourselves

So whether it be Valentine’s Day or any time chocolate seems to call, give yourself permission not only to eat it, but to eat as much as you want of it. Then savor.

And, remember, eating healthy, balanced meals at predictable times is one key to eating without overeating. Then hunger doesn’t drive you and your body into bingeing or cravings because you have been feeding yourself well. Your hunger is a gentle signal that it’s time to eat, and you can respond gently.

If eating as much as you want of it seems a set-up for a binge, buy only a small amount. Likewise, if keeping extra chocolate around presents more of a challenge that you feel prepared to take on right now, share it.

Whether it’s donating an unopened box to a local food shelf, or divvying it up among friends, you can make the decision that you don’t want it. It’s your choice, and making a conscious choice is a key step towards getting what we really want.

How to Eat Chocolate Mindfully

  • Take a piece of your favorite chocolate.
  • Before you pop it into your mouth, take a moment to smell and enjoy its aroma.
  • Then take a bite.
  • Savor it slowly, enjoying how it melts on your tongue, how the flavor floods your mouth.
  • Swallow when you’re ready.
  • If you want, take another bite, savoring again and swallowing when ready.
  • If you want another bite, take it. Continue eating it, eating slowly so you can savor, paying attention to how it tastes and how much you are enjoying it.
  • When it starts not to taste as good and/or your enjoyment starts to fade, decide whether you have had enough.
  • If not, continue eating.
  • If so, then stop.
  • Know that if you want more later, you can have it.

Our Chocolate Taste Test

Dark chocolate seems to spur many fewer cravings among women who struggle with eating sweets. Particularly chocolate that is above 70% cacao content. We did a quick taste test among some of the more common dark chocolate bars we could find. We compared in a decidedly unscientific manner chocolate bars ranging from 85% chocolate to 70%.

The winner: Equal Exchange 80% chocolate

  • Close second: Chocolove 77%
  • Liked least: Green and Black, both 85% and 70%; Dagoba 74%
  • Not really a fair comparison: Endangered Species 72% with Cranberries and Almonds. Loved this one!

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