I'll going to start with a seemingly outrageous assertion and hope that by the end of this article you'll agree. For those concerned about sugar consumption and their sweet tooth this Valentine’s Day, here’s the rule: Chocolate is not your problem; it’s your solution.
Let me explain. First of all, there’s chocolate and then there’s “chocolate.”
Food manufacturers use the word “chocolate” the same way that magazines plaster the word “SEX” in bold all-caps 92-point font on their covers — because it helps them sell their product. Similarly, companies need only put the word “CHOCOLATE” on their syrup, water, nougat, or breakfast cereal, and consumers are more likely to purchase it.
Very dark chocolate could crank down your appetite by turning down levels of the hunger hormone.
But most of these products have ingredients that have never seen a cocoa bean, pod, or tree. These are not chocolates; they’re “chocolates”: candies, pure and simple. And if you eat candy, you most certainly will have issues with your sweet tooth as well as your weight.
If you’re eating candy, it’s not chocolate. If you’re eating chocolate, it’s not candy. And the best way to avoid this candy conundrum is to choose chocolate without anything weird in it, in other words: solid chocolate.
Why Dark Chocolate Is the Healthiest Choice
If you want to have your chocolate and pull your sweet tooth in the process, you’ll have to go dark. Darker chocolate is better because it contains more cocoa and less sugar.
To show this, I analyzed the nutrition labels on three different bars — 90 percent cocoa, 70 percent cocoa, and 50 percent cocoa — of one particular brand of chocolate, Lindt, to see how the calories, fat, and sugars varied. Here is the overall change in nutrient content:
In the right column, you can see the percent difference as you go from the darkest bar to the lightest. The calories are the same, but fat drops by 26 percent, and sugar skyrockets by 525 percent. This dramatic increase feeds your sweet tooth while the lower amount of vegetable fats decreases your satiety. The effect is that you crave more sweets more often.
Clearly, darker chocolate is better for your sweet cravings — but it also offers other benefits that you probably never saw coming.
How Dark Chocolate Can Help Control Hunger
In addition to the luscious wonderfulness of cocoa, the fact that it’s good for your physical heart, your emotional heart, and even your blood sugar, there’s one more bonus effect that no one really talks about: the fact that it’s bitter.
Sounds weird, right? The bitter flavor of chocolate isn’t typically something that anyone dances in the street about. But research shows this can actually help you control consumption after you eat — or even smell — dark chocolate. This study included a group of women who either slowly consumed 30 grams of 85 percent chocolate, or they just smelled the chocolate. In either case, they reported decreased cravings — by as much as one-third to one-half.
This correlated to an increase in the level of hunger hormone ghrelin, indicating a potential biochemical pathway through which chocolate may decrease hunger. The idea, then, is that very dark chocolate could crank down your appetite by turning down the circulating levels of ghrelin.
Why would that be? It may have something to do with the fact that dark chocolate’s more bitter, and less sweet flavor can slow the rate that your stomach empties by 30 percent for 45 minutes after a meal. Slower digestion moderates sugar absorption into your bloodstream, which can help prevent the insulin overproduction that gives you hypoglycemic “sugar blues” one and a half hours later. More energy equals more calories out, and fewer calories in due to hunger cravings.
The bitter flavor of darker chocolates has the same effect (turning down your hunger cravings) for another reason. All you need to do is stimulate the taste receptors for bitter flavor in experimental animals and they show a four-hour decrease in consumption after a meal. That’s four hours of “Nah, I’m good, thanks.”
How to Train Your Brain to Enjoy Darker Chocolate
Just because you don’t like dark chocolate now doesn’t mean that you can’t get there. Likewise, just because you currently like the sweeter, less healthy chocolates, that doesn’t mean you have to stay there. You can adapt your tastes to pull up your cravings so you actually want that darker stuff.
In neuroscience, this process is called “gustatory habituation” and you’ve probably been through this very same thing before if you’ve switched from drinking whole milk to skim milk. If you’ve made this change, you know that you can’t go straight back to whole milk again because it tastes like cream. It’s gross.
But that milk did not change. The milk did not go from great to gross. It was your sense of taste that changed — meaning your brain’s interpretation of the taste receptors on your tongue modified over time.
The same is just as true for your chocolate. The tolerance for sweet that you now have can change in any direction you wish. Here’s how you do it: Start with a chocolate that’s a little darker than you’re used to. Stay at that level until your tastes habituate (one to two weeks, depending on how affected your sweet tooth is), then move up again. In this way, you’re basically taking your own brain by the lobes and using the principles of gustatory habituation to move its preferences in the direction you want.
This brain training translates to other foods as well, and you’ll start to favor other foods that have less sugar in them as well. You won’t want the sugary foods and snacks as much anymore.
In this way, chocolate is not the problem for your sugar intake and excessive sweet tooth ... it’s the solution.
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Will Clower, Ph.D., is an award-winning author, neurophysiologist, neuroscientist, nutritionist, and founder of Mediterranean Wellness, LLC., which administer the Path Healthy Eating and Weight-Loss Curriculum adopted by corporate clients across the U.S. The author of The Fat Fallacy and The French Don’t Diet Plan, he is based in Pittsburgh, PA.