Reader question: I get chocolate cravings after lunch. I find healthy snacks utterly boring and I’m not overweight yet, but I worry that the chocolate is going to somehow catch up with me.

 

I get chocolate cravings after lunch. I find healthy snacks utterly boring and I’m not overweight yet, but I worry that the chocolate is going to somehow catch up with me.

– Chiseled in Chiswick

 

This is one I can definitely sympathize with. I too get chocolate cravings after lunch and, in fact, I eat a bit of chocolate after lunch most days. I’m not going to try to argue that this is a great idea from a healthy eating stand point, but it might not be a terrible one either.

More on that below, but first let’s get a couple of things out of the way:

The fact that you find healthy snacks utterly boring is perfectly understandable.

Your taste system has adapted to your diet. You have been consistently exposing your brain to artificial foods that are unnaturally sweet and your taste system has adjusted its sensitivity accordingly. This type of adaptation happens all the time in many different contexts, it’s one of the fundamental properties of the brain (and something I actually study in my research!).

The good news is that if you just eat mostly unprocessed foods for a few weeks, your brain will shift your taste sensitivity back into the natural range. This is something that many people have noticed when, for example, switching from standard breakfast cereals to whole-grain cereals without added sugar. The new cereal will taste bland and flat at first, but, after a few weeks of taste system readjustment, the new cereal will taste delicious and the old one will taste overly sweet.

Your post-lunch chocolate craving is learned and, if need be, it can be unlearned.

Your brain is hard-wired to trigger cravings for things that bring you pleasure. But it can’t just trigger cravings for random things at random times, or your behavior would be completely erratic. So, in general, your brain will only trigger a craving when there is some environmental cue that suggests that the craving has a good chance of actually being satisfied. Sometimes the cue is something obvious like the craved item itself (e.g. you walk past the vending machine and see a chocolate bar). In your case the cue is the time of day, which is more subtle, but, apparently, just as powerful. The mechanism in these two cases is no different – your brain has learned an association between a particular environmental cue and particular type of pleasure, so when the cue appears, your brain triggers a craving for the pleasure because it knows that the craving is likely to be satisfied.

So, should you want to unlearn this craving, you need to unlearn the association between post-lunch and chocolate by disrupting your routine. Sometimes avoiding a craving is as simple as avoiding the cue (e.g. don’t walk past the vending machine). But it’s hard to avoid a time of day, so you need to use a different approach. You could start pairing post-lunch with other environmental cues that your brain does not associate with chocolate. For example, you could try going to the gym right after lunch. Or, if there is some aspect of your job that is totally incompatible with eating, you could start always doing that right after lunch. Another option is to start pairing post-lunch with a different form of pleasure. Maybe you could take a walk with a podcast right after lunch every day, or play a game for a few minutes.

But if you’ve made it well into adulthood and you haven’t really been gaining weight over time, then you probably don’t need to make any major changes. Rather than try to get rid of this habit entirely, you could start by gradually transforming it into something that is more sustainable. Instead of eating a typical candy bar, you could move toward eating a relatively small amount of dark chocolate. Most days after lunch, I eat 20 grams of 85% dark chocolate.

Chocolate Calories Sugar
Snickers bar (50 grams) 250 27 grams
85% dark (20 grams) 130 3 grams

So the dark chocolate is a big improvement, particularly in terms of sugar. As discussed above, you may have to wait a few weeks while your taste system adapts to chocolate with less sugar. But if the very dark chocolate is too much at first, just start with something lighter like 60% or 70% and work your way up slowly. I love dark chocolate now that my taste system has adapted to it. When chocolate is very dark it becomes possible to actually taste the different flavors in the beans, so I enjoy comparing chocolate from different sources, just as I would coffee or wine.

There is one more thing about chocolate that you should keep in mind. Many chocolate bars will include emulsifiers (e.g. soy lecithin) to help them stay smooth and creamy for months on the shelf. If you really are eating chocolate every day, then you probably want to find some without emulsifiers, since there is good evidence that they can have harmful effects on gut bacteria1.

 

1. Chassaing B, Koren O, Goodrich JK, Poole AC, Srinivasan S, Ley RE, Gewirtz AT. Dietary emulsifiers impact the mouse gut microbiota promoting colitis and metabolic syndrome. Nature. 2015 Mar 5;519(7541):92-6.