I once was surprised to discover I had developed an addiction to chocolate. I had maintained everything from a mild flirtation to a deep infatuation with chocolate for years, and will always consider myself a chocophile and will happily indulge.
The problem is when the switch shifts from chocophile (one who loves chocolate) to chocoholic (one who is compelled to eat chocolate on a regular basis in spite of their greater best interest). This switch sneaked up on me.
“Just a bite” – the story
It started innocently enough. A fabulous dark chocolate option had come across my radar and soon found its way across my palate. Mmmm! This would make a great bite after dinner – just a square to finish the meal.
Soon it seemed like a good idea to do the same after lunch. And not long after that, more often than not one square turned into two or three. This is not inherently a bad thing. There’s no bad guy here. But a dose of chocolate with the fat and sugar content on a regular (twice a day) basis is not compatible with my health and weight goals. Clearly I had a conflict on my chocolate-smudged hands.
I knew that something needed to be done when I discovered 2 things:
- my weight nudged up about a lb or so and stayed there. This was not your ‘daily weight fluctuation’ and I knew it
- the pantry chocolate supply ran out without a backup and I was bereft. That’s putting it pretty strongly, but you know what I mean. It was clearly a withdrawal situation. That’s where the dopamine comes in.
Did the dopamine make me do it?
The dopamine pleasure cascade with high fat, high sugar foods – and especially certain edibles such as chocolate – you may have heard of before. But at this time of year with all the compellingness of Christmas cookies and holiday uber-fudge, a quick reminder can be of huge help. When reminded that it’s not your fault, the guilt load lessens and we are better poised for action. The pull to sugar, fat, and chocolate – the “hyperpalatables” (yes, they have their own category!) – isn’t a character flaw, it’s biology.
The cookies are calling to me!
You may know that dopamine, a neurotransmitter sprinkled throughout your brain, is released when you eat. What you may not know is that it is stimulated just as you are about to eat. That’s right, before you even take a bite. As a matter of fact, this dopamine release is triggered even when rewards are simply present. Within reach of your pleasure-seeking radar. The chocolate in the pantry and the Christmas cookies on the tray really are sending out a magnetic pull. They are biologically pulling you toward fulfillment of a promise. It’s actually true that the cookies are “calling to you”. Even memory and the imagination can stimulate this response. You’re doomed!
In response to this subtle signalling that rewards are present:
- we are motivated to seek the reward they deliver, and inspired against our greater best interest to seek them out
- we sustain awareness about these rewards, retaining an under-the-surface pull for reward satisfaction
The draw to hyperpalatables is simply a biological survival tool. High fat, high sugar foods are the best thing around for helping your body manufacture and store body fat and hang onto the ones you already have. Your body is simply plugging into the system that has helped with human survival since forever. Now that we’ve got that straight, what’s the solution?
Taking action to break the habit
Once I realized this chocolate nibbling pattern was not going to have a happy ending, I decided to take action for change. I stopped buying the chocolate, so it simply wasn’t around any more. I still experienced the pull because I was physically and mentally habituated to it.
Here are the tools for change I implemented:
- I disappeared any chocolate candy from the pantry
- I redirected my desire for a sweet after a meal to a few chunks of frozen or fresh fruit
- I utilized the tools I practice in meditation. Long short: You can choose not to do what your mind is telling you. That takes practice.
It took 3 full weeks for the physical desire and the mental pull to disappear. Yet now, years later, it doesn’t even occur to me to seek out chocolate after lunch or dinner. Sometimes chocolate does find its way again into my pantry or a baked good, and it can present the same challenges of resistance – dopamine wars. This is the reason it is wise choice for me, most of the time, to keep chocolate candy out of the house. Cocoa seems to not present the same problem.
You can implement these same strategies for overcoming the challenge of amazing edibles – at this time of year or any other. Read the top 10 tips for staying healthy, happy and fit through the holidays and do yourself a big favor – don’t stockpile the holiday hyperpalatables in the house, whether as gifts to you or for others. It may seem like a bit of a loss – remember, we experience pleasure from these foods just by their proximity! But now you understand why. And in this case, knowledge is truly power – and inspiration for action.
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