None of this is sound advice. It’s a mix of opinion, speculation, and research. A personal experiment.
I consumed copious amounts of chocolate during my trip in Europe. Nesquik for a hot drink when I had a cold. Hot chocolate before I started trying coffee. A surprising number of chocolate flavored items in Romanian supermarkets. Dark chocolate as one of the core safe foods when I caught traveler’s diarrhea. Also, I brought ten blocks of NZ chocolate to give to strangers throughout my trip, and I was paranoid enough to check that they didn’t go bad…
Motivation for diet
I’ll leave out pages and pages of TMI and condense it down to two main things:
- I’m a “skinny fat” person and that’s even unhealthier than being just fat. If you’ve never heard of the term skinny fat, it might be worth looking into. Anyway, I don’t want to make this any worse while I haven’t established a consistent exercise routine.
- Regardless of my weight or fitness, I genuinely eat too much. I literally just want to eat less overall and think less about eating and be more resistant to hunger. I’m still a student right now, and you don’t need science to verify that thinking hard can increase your consumption in unnecessary ways. (See Why does studying make me hungry.) I can eat up to 50% more than normal on a thinking day, with the worst activity being competitive programming training. (Thankfully I’m mostly retired now.)
There are a lot of other factors that have prompted a change in my diet, but I’ll save that for other posts. This one is mostly about the dark chocolate aspect.
Why appetite suppression rather than calorie counting?
Nutritional information is really a mess these days, and it can be hard to know what to believe. The following is just my personal opinion at this stage, and maybe I’ll be proven wrong one day when I learn more.
Calorie counting. Calorie counting is a conventional method of losing weight that I’ve never tried. I think that it is sound, but there’s one big flaw to it.
One does not simply count their calories and stick to their calorie budget… unless they can, of course.
This sounds stupid with the whole tautology, but I genuinely believe that calorie counting only works if you are lucky enough to be capable of it. That is to say, calorie counting might not just be an inconvenience to your lifestyle, but it also may not be inherently possible for all individuals to sustain in the long term.
At this point, I’m just stubborn and I prefer to believe that you can have a healthy diet while eating as much as you want whenever you want. However, there are multiple lines of reasoning why calorie counting is not for everyone.
Your brain and appetite doesn’t run on calories. Try this TED talk. It’s very brief and only gives a small part of the bigger picture. I’m skeptical of some of it, but I think it’s still relevant.
If you don’t want to watch it, this is my own opinion (not a true summary) on the most salient points:
- The hypothalamus has a setpoint for controlling your hungry and regulating your body weight. Dieting doesn’t always change the setpoint. So if you lose a lot of weight on a temporary diet, then stop the diet, you may well just end up gaining it all back because your brain’s setpoint never changed. It’s not really clear what one can do to permanently change the brain’s calibration for your body.
- Eat when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re not. Practicing this simple mindfulness can prevent unnecessary eating and weight gain.
I do think the setpoint idea may be accurate. I have had two very obvious experiences where my appetite changed significantly due to environmental conditions, and it did seem like my setpoint suddenly shifted in response.
Calories are not equal. A common criticism of calorie counting is that it doesn’t respect the ratio of consumption of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, each of which play significantly different roles in your diet. I’m not confident enough to say much more than that I definitely believe these three sources are not equal both for your appetite and how your body reacts.
Paleo diets, other high fat diets, and ‘eat as much as you want’ diets. The basic idea that affords eating as much as you want is that you should naturally feel full when you’ve eaten enough. Instead of relying on willpower to restrict your calories, the right choice of foods can do that for you naturally. You want foods that are both nutritious and make you feel full. A lot of ‘modern’ and processed food increases your appetite instead, so you’ll want to cut down on those.
You’re not getting fat because you’re eating more, you’re eating more because you’re getting fat. I found this quote hilarious. Again, take this video with a grain of salt. It’s based on “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” which is another book about the increasingly popular topic of whether eating less fat is actually scientifically sound advice for people who are overweight. The Paleo diet and whether the low fat idea we’ve been taught for decades is actually harmful for us are both very controversial topics right now.
My opinion/rant. I believe that every body is unique and you should find what works for you, whether or not there is “science” to back it up. With an engineering and research background and a philosophical interest in biology, I definitely believe that modern science as we hear about it is extremely dodgy and easily mis-quotable when it comes to nutrition and lifestyle. Most peer review science isn’t any more reliable than personal anecdotes. In fact, unless you believe that your body reacts the same way as everyone else’s, then science by its definition is not the place to look for answers. Modern science is extremely young, easily corrupted by conflicting interests, and most of what we thought we knew about human health in the 20th century will probably be proven wrong one day. Listen to your body. My body says that my previous food sources didn’t really work for me.
Dark chocolate for appetite suppression
I’m no expert, and the truth is, I’m not even claiming that this works. It’s an ongoing experiment. What I do know is that I ate tons of chocolate and that something about my eating and exercise habits on my trip severely reduced my usual food intake. My sudden spike in chocolate consumption was one of the possible factors. It turns out I lost a little bit of weight while believing the whole time that what I was eating was extremely unhealthy until I started doing some research on nutrition lately.
The facts, as far as I’m aware:
- Cacao beans and raw cacao are known to act as a natural appetite suppressant.
- Cacao has a bitter taste.
- The flavonoid content in cacao is responsible for the antioxidant and appetite suppression properties. Most of it is flavanols, and the bitter taste also primarily comes from the flavanols.
- Consuming raw cacao (such as in the form of a chocolate drink) is a known weight loss method.
- Other than appetite suppression, cacao is generally considered a nutritious health food with several other benefits and relatively few side effects. However, cacao is very powerful and should not be consumed in excessive quantities.
- Cocoa powder and cocao powder are nutritionally different. Cacao is better for you. Unlike cocoa powder, cacao is processed at under 47 °C so it retains more of its nutrients and antioxidants from its cocoa bean form.
- To clarify, cocoa and cacao are different, but cocoa beans and cacao beans are the same thing.
- Dark chocolate is made from cocoa mass and cocoa butter (both of which come from processing of cocoa) and sugar. What you get from dark chocolate is therefore the reduced benefits of cocoa, not cacao. If you add milk powder to the above mix, you get milk chocolate.
- Dark chocolate and cocoa still function as appetite suppressants to a lesser extent than cacao. But dark chocolate tends to be more accessible in my opinion.
- Multiple sources suggest that dairy can inhibit the body’s absorption of phytonutrients, which applies to the antioxidants in cocoa and cacao. In other words, if you consume milk chocolate or drink milk in the same meal as cacao, you’re losing out on some of the nutritional value of the cocoa/cacao. Unfortunately, dark chocolate generally may contain traces of milk chocolate due to the processing conditions.
- As consumers, we have very limited information about how different dark chocolate products are made. Cacao beans are not all equal, so dark chocolate is not all equal either. But in the absence of information beyond product labels and the manufacturer website, the two main tools are the % cocoa listed and the bitterness of the taste. Higher % cocoa is generally better, such as in the range 65% to 100%.
- The taste can vary significantly between products with similar % cocoa. The most bitter is probably the best, because it means it either has more cocoa content or it is the least processed in the sense of best preserving the flavonoid content. Dark chocolate may be sweetened, but generally not made more bitter, so the bitterness test is arguably more reliable and more important than % cocoa content, as long as it’s more than 65%. Avoid dark chocolate that isn’t bitter.
- In my opinion, bitter chocolate being less addictive is also a valid consideration.
- Exposure to bitter taste triggers a temporary reduction of appetite in its own right. Allegedly, the mere smell of dark chocolate also has an observable effect.
- Note that a chocolate block may have the word cacao on the front and yet not have cacao as an ingredient, but cocoa instead, specifically cocoa mass and cocoa butter. It’s probably allowed because they’re very vaguely referring to the cacao tree/plant. In fact, you can basically assume that dark chocolate will always be made from cocoa not cacao, unless you’re hunting for a rare specialty dark chocolate, if such a thing even exists. Cacao-based chocolate might be used in some research studies, but it’s not anything commercially available.
The strongest benefits that health studies might talk about are from cacao, which you don’t get in dark chocolate. Dark chocolate is still a valid appetite suppressant, but it has reduced benefits, it’s not as healthy, and there’s no easy way to check if the dark chocolate you’re buying is really good for the job. In other words, a dark chocolate diet is kind of experimental, and there doesn’t seem to be much reliable first-hand evidence of whether it works. (The cacao weight loss diet on the other hand actually has an established reputation.) It’s far easier to write a people-pleasing page citing vague expected benefits of dark chocolate just because everyone else is on the media bandwagon than to actually test it out personally.
Experimenting with your own body often isn’t scientific and it doesn’t have to be. I’ll be eating as much dark chocolate as I want for the next few months, nominally about one block per week, and monitoring my weight. There are numerous other diet changes I’ve started, but there’s no point in having a control. I should reiterate that I’m not trying to lose weight at this stage. I just want to see what happens with the new foods I’m relying on. The rest of my diet is also eat as much as I feel I want to. I should repeat that I suspect the choice of dark chocolate product can make a big difference. Two weeks in, I’ve already ruled out one as not being bitter enough and kind of addictive.