It’s almost like a reflex action. You are finally in bed waiting for Morpheus to take you to the world of dreams. Not without first watching a movie or maybe an episode of your favorite series. Suddenly, without thinking, you find yourself rummaging through the nightstand drawers in search of that little chocolate you so much deserve for your daily efforts. Who can blame you!
But no matter how hard you look, you can’t find it. Your whole body is now overturned on top of the drawer and your fingers are running like a runaway paddle through so many old tickets, keys, coins and trinkets that you’ve left there because you don’t know where else to put them. There is no sign of the chocolate, but you have a memory of a binge you had two nights ago. The excuse at this point was the meeting the next day, which made you nervous. So much anxiety! How would you control her without that sugar and cocoa?
Disappointment hits like a broken teenage heart. And with it comes the stony guest again: anxiety. Morpheus looks into the distance, far, far away. And now this?
It seems like the end of the world, even though you know it isn’t. And in fact, instead of covering up insults to your past, you should thank him for his misdeed. I’ll tell you why, but first: why is it that every time we have an anxiety attack, we want to go for chocolate or sweets, in general, like someone who calls Chapulin Colorado?
Felipe Matamala, a psychoanalyst and professor at the University of Diego Portales, argues that there are two cases that explain our relationship with chocolate: the cultural and the physiological. The first has to do with associating a certain well-being with the consumption of sweets. “When there’s a holiday or a birthday, there’s usually chocolates. This is related to the need to show affection or extra affection.
The physiological aspect arises because chocolate also generates a state of pleasure by activating the brain’s reward systems. Some studies show that dopamine, a neurotransmitter known as the “happy hormone,” is released. However, this would not be the only natural chemical responsible for this pleasant feeling.
This is according to a study published in 2012 in the United States, according to which overeating chocolate or other foods that act as a reward have a chemical effect on the brain very similar to drug use. That is, they activate waves of enkephalin, a peptide that, like endorphins, acts as an opiate receptor and provides a sense of well-being. They can even temporarily relieve pain, just like morphine would.
However, the pleasant effect of consuming chocolates only lasts for a few moments. It’s short and after it’s over there’s an emptiness and a longing to feel so good again. So the first impulse is to seek it again through more chocolate. “It gives not only the feeling of pleasure, but also to associate that food with him.” Every time I eat chocolate, I will associate it with emotional well-being, with certain memories, with my own stories that often remain unconscious,” says Matamala.
So chocolate and morphine aren’t that far off. It’s no wonder that whenever we’re feeling down or down and the daily grind is high, we reach for that little fat, sugar and cocoa. We just want some relief.
This need can also be observed in other cases on a physiological level. “It appears, for example, that when women are close to the start of their menstrual cycle, they experience more anxiety about food, including chocolate,” says Javier Vega, a nutritionist and diabetologist at the UC Christus Health Network.
This is due to hormonal changes in which high levels of estrogen and progesterone are reached. But as soon as they do, it begins to decrease, affecting blood sugar levels in the past, which also decrease. Then comes that almost uncontrollable urge to eat chocolate, which offers not only an offset to glucose levels, but also the aforementioned analgesic effect.
Also some of its components — present in varieties with a high percentage of cocoa — among which are some quite useful ones such as magnesium, fiber, potassium, vitamin B and flavonoids, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Relax, I see you getting up from your seat to go buy an arsenal of chocolates because you read that some of its nutrients are good for you. Did you forget so quickly that the study above compared its effects to those of drugs?
As always, the risk comes from the fact that overeating chocolate is common. A kind of toxic relationship that, in combination with other foods, habits and behaviors, leads us to eating disorders such as obesity.
On the other hand, Vega explains that the effect of chocolate on the body depends on its quality. More precisely, the amount of fat, sugar and cocoa it contains. “The more fat, the more impact it will have on blood sugar levels and lead to higher levels of insulin resistance,” he says.
Insulin is the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. Therefore, resistance to it does not allow cells to respond adequately to the amount of glucose, thus it accumulates in the blood, causing an imbalance and increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
About 90% of diabetes patients are type 2, a chronic disease that is largely due to a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet. That’s why, Vega says, it’s a problem when you eat chocolate excessively and on a repeated basis.
How much is excessive? “Eat just one full bar of chocolate,” says the diabetologist. How much is an adequate serving? “Nutritionists always recommend one or two servings of chocolate on occasion.” In any case, he points out that the negative impact it has on our bodies “does not only depend on the quantity eaten, but also on the quality.”
We said: the more fat, the more sugar the body has to process. That is why the suggestion is to bet on chocolates with a higher percentage of cocoa. For example, dark chocolate usually has between 50 and 80% of this natural ingredient. It will be less sweet and more bitter, perhaps much more than your palate can handle, but it also has more of the healthy components, such as antioxidants and other nutrients, and less sugar and fat.
At the dawn of humanity, what we ate depended on our success in hunting. It was necessary to take advantage of daylight to leave the cave and travel long distances in search of food, which meant exposure of physical integrity and even life. Sometimes days can go by without something to fill the stomach, but the body is able to withstand these forced fasting thanks to the stores of glycogen and triglycerides contained in the body.
This past has several implications for our present. Although we are far from those times, our body still works under certain conditions and tries to adapt to more modern ones, which, although they may not seem like it, are completely new in the context of human evolution. This is how chronobiology explains it, a discipline that studies the biological rhythms of living things. “It seeks to understand the internal mechanisms of our body that are determined by evolutionary history,” says Nicolás Tobar, INTA professor at the University of Chile and PhD in nutrition and foods.
The circadian rhythm is what we structure our lives according to, as it corresponds to 24 hours in a day and is based on our relationship with light and dark. In the past, human activity focused almost exclusively on the hours when the sun shone. Today, instead, artificial light floods the night, a mismatch in circadian rhythms that chronobiology pays attention to because it has an effect on our body. Among other things, we sleep fewer hours and eat more.
Something similar happens with chronoeating: “it seeks to understand how modern nutrition alters certain balances—fasting/eating, wakefulness/sleep, among others—and generates favorable or unfavorable effects on our biological rhythms,” explains Tobar. For example, the continuous access to food that we have. It doesn’t matter what time it is: if we’re hungry, we go to the fridge and get food or order it for delivery, something we couldn’t do until a few decades ago. But what hasn’t changed is our circadian rhythm: when night falls, like a hundred, two thousand or 50 thousand years ago, our body expects a rest and goes into rest mode, which means that its metabolic processes are not the same like during the day.
Assuming we spend the day eating, our reserve levels—the same ones that primitive humans went days without eating—will be full by 6 p.m. With this, you have enough energy to use until you fall asleep. Eating chocolate at 10 p.m. not only has extra calories you probably don’t need (and won’t help you sleep much); it will also transform into excess glycogen, the “packaged sugar in the blood.” And since the body won’t know what to do with it, it will transform it into fat.
This is not about demonizing, it’s about making us more aware. In chronobiology, two chronotypes of people are distinguished: larks and owls. The first respond to those who wake up early, because their biological clock requires this, they remain active during the day, and when night comes, they quickly go into sleep mode and it is not difficult for them to fall asleep early.
For owls, on the other hand, waking up early is a trial and they better face their peak activity at night. In both chronotypes, the metabolism differs: an owl will have less trouble processing the food it eats at night than a lark.
However, Tobar’s recommendation is that if we wake up between 6 and 7 in the morning, the last meal of the day should be no later than 6 or 7 in the afternoon. In the case of the last chocolate, which is hopefully three hours before bed “to give digestion and metabolism time”. Believe it or not, the body is prepared for at least 12 hours of fasting. “That’s when the body starts to use up its reserves,” says the INTA researcher.
Some specialists offer alternatives to control or rather regulate the chemical effect of fatty foods, such as chocolate. Such is the case with French biochemist Jesse Inchauspe, author of the bestseller The glucose revolutionwhere he learns how to soften peaks glucose produced by eating certain foods.
“For decades, people have been wrongly focused on cutting fat and calories; today we know that the real problem generators are the foods that deregulate our blood sugar levels,” presents Incauspe, who can be found on Instagram as the Glucose Goddess, where she shares a series of tips on the matter. For example this:
“When we eat something sweet, the goal should be to maximize the pleasure and minimize the impact on the body by reducing the glucose rollercoaster that the sweet food will create. Easy tip: Dress up your carbs a bit,” says Inchauspe. If you’re having chocolate cake, make it with Greek yogurt. Or if you’re going to eat chocolate, accompany it with almonds. The vegetable fats in the nuts would soften the candy’s sugar hit. This, according to Javier Vega, could have a positive effect, but “it is difficult for people to distinguish when the problem comes from fat or sugar, because in the end it is global”.
In any case, learning how your body works, what effects the foods we eat have on the body, understanding the reasons why you do what you do (eat chocolate when you feel anxious) will enable us to take more conscious decisions. It’s not about demonizing or less suppressing those pleasures, it’s about making the pleasure guilt-free and the dreams sweeter than ever.
*Product prices in this article are current as of September 14, 2022. Values and availability are subject to change.