The chocolate challenge

by Jennifer Bowden / 07 April, 2012
Make an “If then” plan this Easter to avoid over-indulgence.


Monty Python heartily encouraged us to “Always look on the bright side of life”. And with the arrival of the Easter Bunny imminent, looking on the bright side of a potentially chocolate-packed long weekend seems a good idea. After all, chocolate and cocoa are rich sources of flavonoids, a group of compounds that have antioxidant effects and may protect the body from damage by free radicals.

The flavonoids in chocolate may also lower blood pressure and make blood vessels function better. Perhaps this explains why studies have found a link between consuming chocolate and reducing the risk of a stroke, a heart attack and diabetes.

Still, much as I’m loath to take the shine off things, more research is needed to determine if chocolate really improves cardiovascular health. Chocolate is generally high in fat, sugar and calories that can promote weight gain, so there is good reason to choose healthier types of chocolate and limit our intake, too.

Avoiding filled chocolates is a good starting point, as most fillings add sugar, fat and calories in exchange for few, if any, nutrients. Choosing dark chocolate is also a good idea, as it contains more flavonoids than milk or white chocolate. And opt for dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 65% or more, advises the Mayo Clinic, which recommends limiting chocolate intake to 85g a day, a quantity some studies suggest may be beneficial.

But therein lies the real chocolate challenge – to stop eating when you’re halfway through a chocolate bar. How is it that some people can leave a half-eaten chocolate bar sitting in the cupboard for a week, while others are driven to keep eating until every last sweet morsel in the house is gone?

Our level of executive control may be the answer. And no, we’re not talking about executive control in the workplace, but instead a variety of cognitive skills that help us plan, initiate and execute complex goal-directed behaviours, such as eating a healthy diet, in a world with endless possibilities and temptations.

There is a sizeable gap between healthy eating intentions and actual behaviour; researchers refer to this as the intention behaviour gap. Accumulating evidence suggests that individual differences in executive control may explain this gap between what we say we want to do and what we actually end up doing. British researchers delved deeper into this issue and discovered that people with weak inhibitory control, one aspect of executive control, were more likely to unintentionally eat chocolate despite healthy intentions.

People with weak inhibitory control were also more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI), according to the 2010 study published in Appetite. Inhibitory control is the ability to resist a strong preference to do one thing and instead do what is most needed or appropriate – for example, saying no to another big slice of chocolate cake when we know eating more would be detrimental to our healthy eating goals.

So, what should we do if we struggle to say no? Start by setting up an environment that contains fewer temptations – for example, you might decide to ban chocolate from the house. But we also need a plan to deal with temptations outside the home. Research has found that “if then” plans can help people who struggle with temptation to firm their resolve.

“If-then” plans are simply an advance plan for a particular situation – if I encounter X, I will do Y. For
example, you might decide this Easter to allow yourself one decent-sized chocolate bunny and after that “if I am offered chocolate, I will say ‘no thank you’ and ask for a glass of water.” The secret to success is simply to have a plan to deal with temptation.

Email: nutrition@listener.co.nz, or write to “Nutrition”, c/o Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142.
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