Last month I kept seeing adverts for the great 'Dechox' - a sponsored month without a single drop of chocolate. This strangely instantly appealed to me. I say strangely, as anyone who knows me can attest to, I am a huge chocolate fiend. I suppose it appealed to me on a few levels. One, I wanted to kick start my healthy eating again, which had slipped slightly thanks to Christmas, and never come quite back. And two, because I wanted to prove to myself once and for all, that I don't need chocolate.
I love chocolate. That statement doesn't entirely articulate exactly how I feel for the wonder that is chocolate. I can easily pass up on most food groups if offered, but with chocolate I always find it very hard to say no. Which is why this challenge appealed to me. I have had such an intense relationship with the sweet creamy treat for so many years, I wanted to see how, or if, I could sever those ties. See if I could retrain my thinking from, 'life isn't worth living without chocolate' to 'I love it, but I don't need it.'
Our relationships with food are a funny one. We need food to survive, and as such we are chemically rewarded in our brains whenever we eat. Which is why we love doing it so much! Every time we eat, we get a nice dollop of dopamine. This dopamine is there so that we are encouraged to do it again. If we didn't get that, we would have forgotten to feed ourselves and would soon starve to death. However, in recent times, where food is no longer scarce, that dopamine can wreak havoc with our food desires. Certain foods, particularly those with a perfect combination of fat and sugar (think chocolate and cheesecake) give us a particularly high dose of these feel good chemicals - and our brain loves it! Foods with this combination aren't found in the natural world, so our brain doesn't quite know how to deal with it, and very quickly becomes hooked!
Not only do we crave the chemical high we get from these fatty sweet foods, but we then start to attribute emotion to that high as well. Our brains love patterns, so if we eat chocolate at fun social occasions, as celebrations or as a treat, we then begin to form a neurological link between that high, and those occasions. Before long we begin to crave that high, not because we're hungry, but because our brain says, 'Hey, we just had a good day at work, we should be celebrating - CHOCOLATE!'. Sound familiar? Or the other common one, 'we've had a bad day at work. I know what will make us feel better - CHOCOLATE!'.
And here enters the negative loop many people find themselves stuck in. Bad day, chocolate, momentary high, followed by pangs of guilt. This is something I know too well. Which is why I was so keen to take a month to remove any emotional ties with chocolate, put myself back into intellectual control when it came to my favourite treat.
I went into the month confident, I am a tough cookie when I need to be, and knew that I'd be able to give it a good go! The first few days were hard, I am not going to lie. My brain and body yelled out for all things sugary. I'd gone from having a daily fix (even if it was only a nibble) to now not allowing myself any, and I felt it! In steps the primitive mind, who starts to try and reason with you, as to why you should allow yourself just a taste. Our primitive mind is very good at sounding like it makes sense, like it is looking out for your best interests. 'Go on, you deserve it, you've been to the gym today, you deserve it,' is one I heard often.
It is in these moments that you need to listen to the other voice, the voice of your intellectual, rational mind, who is telling you that you set yourself a goal, now stick to it! This voice is sometimes quiet, being drowned out by the bigger primitive voice, but if you pause, and listen carefully you can hear it. In those moments I had to remind myself of the bigger picture. Yes, a bite of chocolate would feel wonderful, but then I would be wrapped with the guilt of having given up so soon. When you can take a step back, and look at the bigger picture, at your goals and realise how wonderful reaching them will feel, then the nagging voice saying 'Go on, just a little,' suddenly gets a frog in it's throat.
Not only is goal setting a great way of staying on track, but I also found that distraction or replacement helped. In the moments where I would have usually reached for a square of chocolate, I made sure to keep myself occupied. When busy doing things that interest you, your intellectual mind is working, meaning that voice of reason can be heard loud and clear. When distraction isn't an option, then replacing chocolate with something else, something tasty but healthy worked a treat! Sometimes it was a cup of tea, sometimes some berries or a banana.
Fruit is a great option - it gives you a good little sugar kick, while being a natural dopamine high that the brain recognises.
It is now very nearly the end of my month. And I have surprised myself! I went on holiday to Lisbon, the home of the world's best chocolate cake, and I didn't have a bite! I made it all through Easter weekend without a single Mini Egg. Something I wouldn't have thought possible. Not only have I cut chocolate out, but as the month has progressed I have completely overhauled my eating, now cutting out nearly all sugar. And it has only gotten easier.
As my month comes to an end, I will be allowing chocolate and sugar back into my life. But I feel completely confident that I now have full control over that nagging little voice, and that now when I eat chocolate I can fully appreciate it, and enjoy it without gorging myself and feeling bad afterwards. Ultimately, I think the most important lesson I have learnt this month is to believe in myself, and to trust myself. Not only that, but to be gentle with myself. It wasn't going to be easy, I was going to have days where I wavered, but by being confident in my own ability, and trusting I could get through it, the month has whizzed by and it was a lot easier than I anticipated.