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Is It Okay to Eat Chocolate to Feel Better?

By December 11, 2012

Let me preface my question by explaining that I like to call myself an experienced eating disordered individual. Meaning, I have been working hard on my issues with eating since I first realized I had a problem 20 years ago. Therapy, medication, reading, research – you name it. I am proud of the place I’ve arrived after this time – only occasionally using food for reasons other than nourishment. That being said, sometimes not only do I really want to binge (usually on sweets – primarily chocolate) but I really do perceive that I feel better afterwards – and not just as a quick fix. It’s a lingering calm. Obviously foods have chemical components that can greatly affect us. Is it possible that sometimes it’s OK to want to eat chocolate to feel better? And that sometimes it actually works because it does affect us chemically/hormonally? I do find that sometimes (yes, usually around that time of the month) it’s not “in my head” but is actually a physical compulsion almost. Or is it an absolute? I don’t know how “normal” people think about or use food. Now that I’ve come so far, is it normal and even ok to rely on food to feel better from time to time? Or, the moment I’m craving food and I know it’s to make me feel better (emotionally – and physically in some cases due to an increase in energy) do I assume that food will never solve my problem and I always need to find a different solution to feel better? And while I have you, I struggle with the fact that chocolate and moderation around “that time” do not go hand and hand with me. In your experience, do you find that some individuals are better served by avoiding food(s) with which they appear to have this problem? – Hilary

Dear Hilary,

Congratulations on your hard work and success in understanding your eating, good job!

You are absolutely right about the likely chemical effects of food on the brain. This is precisely why many individuals binge to self medicate—it works. One feels better for a time. The danger is, of course, in relying on binge eating as the one and only way to manage stressful feelings. This can lead to unhealthy consequences such as emotional arrest and weight gain/diabetes/high blood pressure, etc.

However, to occasionally eat chocolate just because it is available and sounds good is perfectly normal. Especially around that time of month, some evidence (which I should note is controversial) suggests that women need some 200 extra calories or so to jump start their cycle. This, coupled with major hormonal shifts, can naturally increase appetite results for many of us.

I also feel that sometimes it is perfectly fine and normal to use food to make you feel better. I’m still not a fan of binge eating, but a piece of chocolate here, or a mocha there can be a very reasonable way to meet the body’s need. It doesn’t always have to be purely physiological. A well respected nutritionist named Ellyn Satter talks about this in her definition of “normal eating.”

She explains the term “competent eating” which involves mostly eating in response to physiological hunger, but sometimes eating simply because it tastes good. We are connected mind, body, spirit. So I believe when we nurture one, we will affect the others in some way.

In my opinion, it is almost never a good idea to completely avoid foods that you truly enjoy. Human nature dictates that we simply end up craving this “forbidden food” and probably eat much more than if we had just had a bit when we craved it in the first place.

So, eat mindfully with balance, variety and moderation. Eat foods that are nutritious and satisfying. Finding freedom in eating is truly one of the most pleasurable and healthy things to do for mind, body and spirit.

Best wishes,

Juliet N. Zuercher, RD