Wellness

How To Use Chocolate To Strengthen Your Willpower

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By Tom Jacobs

Be honest: Have you already broken your New Year’s resolution to eat fewer fattening foods? If so, it’s not really a surprise. The battle between long-term goals (better health!) and short-term pleasures (butter cookies!) is seldom a fair fight. Reflexive reactions often have an edge over reasoned responses.

Over the past decade or so, a group of researchers attempting combat the obesity epidemic has been experimenting with ways to rewire those instinct-driven impulses. In a just-published paper, two of them—Katrijn Houben and Anita Jansen of Maastricht University in the Netherlands—present new evidence that this shift can be induced, and explain the mechanism driving the welcome change.

In their experiment, they utilized the food many of us find the hardest to resist: chocolate.

“Inhibiting impulses does not necessarily have to be an effortful, top-down process, but can also be triggered in an automatic, bottom-up fashion,” they write in the journal Appetite. They go on to describe an experiment showing that “food-specific inhibition training” can be surprisingly effective.

The study featured 52 female undergraduates who reported they liked eating chocolate on a regular basis. All took part in a standard go/no-go task, in which they were instructed to press the space bar when a “go” cue appeared on their computer screen, and to refrain from doing so when the cue was absent. The cue consisted of either the letter “p” or “f,” which was displayed randomly on one corner of the screen.

“Participants were randomly assigned one of two conditions,” the researchers write. “In the chocolate go/no-go condition, chocolate-related pictures (that is, images of different types of chocolate candy) were consistently paired with the “no-go” cue, while pictures of empty plates were consistently paired with the “go” cue.” The opposite was true for those in the alternate condition.

Afterwards, all were asked to participate in a bogus taste test, in which they were presented three bowls filled with different types of chocolates and told they could eat as much or as little as they wanted before making their assessments. Participants also filled out forms detailing their concerns about weight and dieting, their body-mass index, and their general level of chocolate craving.

The key result: “Participants in the chocolate/no-go condition consumed significantly less chocolate during the taste test compared to participants in the chocolate/go condition.” Specifically, they ate an average of 29.45 grams of chocolate, compared to 37.91 grams for those who had just associated the terms “chocolate” and “go.”

The researchers are quick to point out that “one single session was not enough to induce automatic associations between ‘chocolate’ and ‘stop.'” But as another part of the study found (and the actual consumption levels confirmed), it was enough to reduce the automatic association between the sweet treat and the “go” impulse. Could a series of such sessions break it completely? The question is certainly worth researching.

Granted, re-training our automatic impulses in this way has vaguely unsettling overtones of mind control. But given the personal and societal problems associated with obesity, this may be one brave new world worth venturing into. Call it A Clockwork Orange Cake.

1
Chocolate Decreases Stroke Risk
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A 2011 Swedish study found that women who ate more than 45 grams of chocolate a week had a 20 percent lower risk of stroke than women who treated themselves to fewer than 9 grams of the sweet stuff.
2
Chocolate Boosts Heart Health
Flickr:Chocolate Reviews
Regular chocolate eaters welcome a host of benefits for their hearts, including lower blood pressure, lower "bad" LDL cholesterol and a lower risk of heart disease. One of the reasons dark chocolate is especially heart-healthy is its inflammation-fighting properties, which reduce cardiovascular risk. Flickr photo by Lee McCoy
3
Chocolate Fills You Up
Flickr:Vegan Feast Catering
Because it's rich in fiber, dark chocolate can actually help keep you full, so you'll eat less, Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center and HuffPost blogger told The Huffington Post. Regular chocolate eaters might do themselves a favor by treating themselves to a bite instead of snacking on "11 other things first" he said. Dark chocolate does the trick much better than milk, according to a small study from the University of Copenhagen, and may even reduce cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods. Flickr photo by Vegan Feast Catering
4
Chocolate May Fight Diabetes
Flickr:The Integer Club
A small Italian study from 2005 found that regularly eating chocolate increases insulin sensitivity, thereby reducing risk for diabetes. Flickr photo by The Integer Club
5
Chocolate Protects Your Skin
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Forget what you've heard about chocolate causing breakouts: Dark chocolate is actually good for your skin. The type of antioxidants called flavonoids found in dark chocolate offer some protection from UV damage from the sun. And no, that does not mean you can skip the sunscreen!
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Chocolate Can Quiet Coughs
Flickr:ryancboren
Can't stop coughing? An ingredient in chocolate called theobromine seems to reduce activity of the vagus nerve, the part of the brain that triggers hard-to-shake coughs. In late 2010, the BBC reported that scientists were investigating creating a drug containing theobromine to preplace cough syrups containing codeine, which can have risky side effects. Flickr photo by ryancboren
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Chocolate Boosts Your Mood
Flickr:stevendepolo
There's no denying that indulging your sweet tooth every once in a while feels great. Enjoying food is part of enjoying life, points out HuffPost Healthy Living's wellness editor, Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald. Chocolate eaters also report feeling less stressed. Flickr photo by stevendepolo
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Chocolate Improves Blood Flow
Flickr:David Berkowitz
Cocoa has anti-clotting, blood-thinning properties that work in a similar way to aspirin, Dr. Fitzgerald writes, which can improve blood flow and circulation. Flickr photo by David Berkowitz
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Chocolate Improves Vision
Flickr:Robert Couse-Baker
Because of chocolate's ability to improve blood flow, in particular to the brain, researchers at the University of Reading hypothesized in a small 2011 study that chocolate may also increase blood flow to the retina, thereby giving vision a boost. Flickr photo by Robert Couse-Baker
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Chocolate May Make You Smarter
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That boost of blood flow to the brain created by cocoa's flavanols seems to make people feel more awake and alert, and, in a small British study, perform better on counting tasks.