Did you give up chocolate for Lent? How’s that working out for you?
Are you beginning to feel a little bit nuts at the thought of creamy rich chocolate melting in your mouth? Well I guess Lent’s almost over so I don’t feel bad about being a tease.
Giving up chocolate for Lent isn’t exactly novel, but according to a site that tracks what Twitter users are ditching for Lent, giving up chocolate is the third most common vice after alcohol and social networking (although fuckboys are 38th on the list so not convinced it’s the most reliable source).
Giving up chocolate isn’t just for Lent anymore though guys. The British Heart Foundation recently told us to ditch chocolate for the entire month of March, in what they call a dechox. Real cute BHF, real cute. Their website even featured a deranged looking woman wielding a half-eaten chocolate bar. Because, you know, crazy women and their chocolate… (can we come up with a new trope already?)
And before that, Cancer Research UK told us to ditch ALL ADDED SUGARS for the whole of February.
As a Registered Nutritionist, you’d probably think I was into this. That I should be congratulating these charities for getting us to eat healthier while raising cold hard cash for a good cause and moving the dial farther than 5-a-day ever did (side note: 5-a-day team; maybe if people could raise money…no? Okay).
But I’m not cool with it. In fact, I’m kinda pissed. On multiple levels.
First of all, conflating sugar with cancer? Not cool. Associating cutting out chocolate with ‘detoxing’? Batshit. Has the clean eating backlash taught us nothing? There is already so much confusion around sugar, that we don’t need health charities alluding to a link between sugar and cancer, or chocolate and heart disease. Sugar (and by extension anything with sugar in it) is demonised enough as it is, without major charities getting in on the action. Besides, any reputable nutrition organisation will tell you that all foods fit as part of a healthy balanced and varied diet.
Just to be clear; I’m not against fundraising. But like, what’s wrong with heart healthy 5Ks?
I get it, we need to reduce our sugar consumption as a population. Reduce, not eradicate entirely.
But the mixed-messaging of these campaigns isn’t even what concerns me the most; the bigger problem here, is that for people who are predisposed to having a weird relationship with food and/or their bodies, giving up chocolate, whether for ‘dechoxing’ or for Lent can be a gateway drug to disordered eating.
I’m not talking about full-blown eating disorders (although I’m not discounting them either). What I’m talking about is more subtle but also more prevalent. The fucked up relationship most women (and a lot of dudes) have with food, being worsened or legitimised by messages to restrict foods under the guise of health. Ditto if they’re used as a tool for weight loss. The patterns of restriction, meticulous calorie counting and compulsive exercise, all documented on a perfectly curated feed, followed by periods of (relative) bingeing, and feelings of guilt, anxiety, and food worry. I see this almost daily in my nutrition practice.
We’ve know for a long time that restrictive diets can be precursors to bingeing, having a preoccupation with food, getting easily distracted and a general emotional discomfort (what the kids call ‘hangry’). After periods of restriction, even previously healthy eaters find it impossible not to go hard on the M&Ms, leading to the false diagnosis of ‘chocoholic’. The concept of food addiction is widely criticised by the scientific community and the feeling of being ‘out of control’ around chocolate or a seemingly insatiable desire for chocolate is thought to be a result of restriction and deprivation, rather than true addiction like alcohol or drugs. In other words, feeling batshit and out of control around food is almost always preceded by dietary restriction.
Since we are hardwired to want the thing we can’t have, as soon as we place a restriction on food (like, say, Lent), cravings get dialled up, the desire for chocolate becomes more salient. But because we label chocolate as ‘bad’, or a ‘guilty pleasure’, we continue the cycle of restriction rather than just letting ourselves enjoy the good chocolate and satisfy the craving.
Dietary restriction can trigger bingeing. It’s science. Whether you’re restricting chocolate, sugar in general, or ‘junk food’; restriction leads to an increase in neurotransmitters and hormones like ghrelin and neuropeptide – both of which are super potent orexigenics – they stimulate appetite. So as the day goes on – these guys build up, you give in (to your normal biological urge to eat) and once you pop you can’t stop. Sound familiar? Yup.
Of course, this isn’t everyone’s experience giving up chocolate at Lent; some people will have no problem and get back to enjoying the odd KitKat. But for some, this could initiate or exacerbate food issues.
Maybe next year try giving up Netflix for Lent; I think Jesus would be cool with that.
Laura Thomas holds a PhD in Nutritional Sciences from Texas A&M University and completed her Post-Doctoral training in Nutrition at Cornell University. She is a Association for Nutrition Registered Nutritionist.