The solution? Eat more chocolate. And no, we're not kidding. "There's no better food to connect the dots between mind and body than the deliciously emotional, palpably physical response we all have to eating pure chocolate," writes Will Clower, PhD, neurophysiologist, neuroscientist, and nutritionist in his new book, Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight. As gimmicky as it might sound, eating chocolate might be the best natural remedy for anxiety you're not using, and science has shown that it goes beyond the mere buzz you get from gobbling up a Hershey bar in your car on the way home from work.
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The Cortisol-Cocoa Connection
Stress prompts your body to produce cortisol; research has shown that obese women have higher levels of cortisol than women of normal weight, and cortisol also triggers the accumulation of abdominal, or visceral, fat, which builds up around your organs and can contribute to depression, along with heart disease and stroke. Yet a 2009 study found that people who ate 40 grams (about an ounce) of chocolate every day for two weeks saw decreases in cortisol in their systems compared to its levels at the start of the study. Another study a year later showed that, over the course of 30 days, people who ate cocoa daily had 10 percent lower levels of anxiety and considered themselves 10 percent calmer than they had been at the start of the study.
But the key to their success, Clower writes, is all in prevention, not reaction. Studies finding that the sweet stuff has a positive impact on mood and anxiety all looked at consumption over the course of 30 days, he adds, while studies looking at people who consume chocolate in response to stress find those people generally feel as depressed after their chocolate fix as they did before it. They experience what he calls a "mood massage" that lasts roughly three minutes—"just long enough for you to reach for another candy from the sack"—then disappears.
Taking chocolate over time allows your body to build up levels of cocoa's polyphenols, which are responsible for regulating stress hormones. "The cocoa polyphenols don't immediately boost mood, satisfaction, calmness, or contentedness," he adds. "This happens only when chocolate is eaten slowly and steadily." In other words, a patient chocolate eater is a happy chocolate eater.
Chocolate: You're Eating It Wrong
You won't reap the mood-boosting benefits of chocolate by reaching for that bag full of fun-size candies, or even by eating a chocolate bar a day. If you want chocolate to truly make you happy and less stressed, your approach to eating it needs to be a little more nuanced. Here are Clower's suggestions:
• Quality over…anything else. Dark chocolate is less stressful than milk chocolate, for lots of reasons. Milk chocolate is loaded with sugar and other additives, while also being devoid of most of cocoa's healthy components, such as cocoa butter. Furthermore, the milk blocks your body's absorption of the antidepressant antioxidants. Studies analyzing the healthfulness of chocolate rely on dark chocolates with at least 70 percent cacao or even unsweetened 100-percent cocoa powder.
• Eat small amounts. Once you find a bar you like—if you need suggestions, check out the results of our organic chocolate taste test—take it in small doses. To battle stress and anxiety, Clower advises taking 40 grams a day for at least eight weeks. But divide those 40 grams into eight 5-gram bites per day; 5 grams should equal a piece roughly the size of the end joint on your thumb. Stick with 40 grams per day, too, as there isn't any evidence that eating more will make you feel even better.
• Eat it slowly. Don't chew, or even suck on, your chocolate pieces. Let them sit on your tongue and melt slowly. "This added time you spend slowly tasting your chocolate is time you're not popping more into your mouth," Clower writes. The flavor lingers and your brain thinks you're eating the entire time, he adds, so you're less likely to overindulge.
Not into exceedingly dark chocolates? Use cocoa powder instead (avoid "Dutch" cocoa, which has been heavily processed). About ½ cup, or eight tablespoons, of 100 percent unsweetened powder will give you the same nutrients as the 40 grams per day you'd eat in bar form. Add a few tablespoons to your morning oatmeal, use a few teaspoons in your favorite vinaigrette, or cook with it!
adapted from Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 Tablespoons chili powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon ground red pepper
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 pounds ground beef
1 onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 red bell pepper, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 jalapeño chile pepper, ribbed, seeded, and diced (wear gloves when handling)
2 jars (28 ounces each) crushed tomatoes
1 jar (6 ounces) tomato paste
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
¼ cup lime juice
Sharp Cheddar cheese
To make the seasoning: Put the cocoa powder, chili powder, oregano, salt, black pepper, red pepper, and cumin in a jar and shake it around until blended. Wet your pinkie, stick it into the mix, and taste to see if there is some flavor that you want more of.
To make the chili:
1. In a large Dutch oven, brown the ground beef over medium-high heat until no longer pink. Remove it from the pan and set aside.
2. Reduce the heat to medium and add the onions and garlic. Cook until the onions are soft. Then add the bell pepper and jalapeño pepper.
3. Add the browned beef to the pot, along with the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, chocolate, lime juice, and the chili-chocolate-spice seasoning. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes.
4. Serve with shredded Cheddar cheese and sour cream.