THE BLOG
01/10/2014 01:25 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2014

Can Chocolate Make You Fit?

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Can chocolate pave the way to a fitter you this year? Charles Duhigg says it can, and this isn't some miracle diet -- he provides research to back his claim. Read on if you want to know how this works.

I reviewed Duhigg's The Power of Habit when it was first published in 2012. As 2014 offers a fresh start for those of us looking to get in better shape, and the paperback edition is hitting shelves this week, let's revisit some of the books' helpful ideas.

Habits to the rescue?

It might be hard to admit, but we are creatures of habit. Most of our daily actions aren't governed by thoughtful decisions but rather by our tendency to do what we've always done, and to do so with no thought whatsoever. But once we understand that, we can develop better habits, and let those run on autopilot and lead us to better health and better food choices.

habit loop

A habit is a three-step loop, written in our brain's pathways. First comes a cue: a trigger that tells our brain to go into the automatic mode of the habit. Then comes the routine, which is the physical, emotional or mental action we take. What follows is the reward: the prize at the end of the routine is what reminds our brain why this habit is worth keeping. When a habit is fully formed the reward's rush of excitement appears well before it actually happens -- brain scans show that we expect the reward and get excited as soon as the cue appears, and this anticipation creates cravings.

Vicious and virtuous loops

Food habits start innocently: Feeling tired or bored an hour after lunch can become a cue to walk to the vending machine and select a high calorie snack that hits all the right spots and gives you the instant reward of yumminess and energy. After repeating this routine several times it becomes habit, and your brain craves to finish the loop whenever the faintest prompt shows up. 

So how can chocolate make you run?

If you want to develop a running habit, here's what Duhigg suggests you can do:

The cue can be seeing your running shoes next to your bed. The routine is your run or walk. The reward can be a piece of chocolate when you get home from your run. Repeat this several times and the cue and the reward become neurologically connected.

Soon enough, when you see sneakers, you think chocolate, and that makes it easier to hit the pavement each day. After a while, the treat isn't even necessary anymore -- your brain feels the reward in the workout itself.

Notice the difference between the two snacking behaviors above? In the first example boredom or fatigue (cue) leads to a vending machine purchase and a sweet reward. In the second, more virtuous habit loop, seeing the sneakers (cue) leads to running (healthy routine) because you can already feel the chocolate (reward) melting in your mouth.

And if you need further motivation to exercise here's another useful tip from The Power of Habit: Some habits, and exercise is clearly one of them, are more important than others, because they spill over to other parts of life causing a ripple effect. These habits are called keystone habits, and identifying them can often trigger widespread change. Studies show that introducing exercise -- even infrequently -- changes other daily routines. Unknowingly, people who start to exercise start eating better, are less stressed, and become more productive at work.

Some would argue that sweet desserts are not a good reward even when they facilitate a healthy habit. The Power of Habit gives new insight into the brain's behind-the-scenes work, and if there's a good habit you'd like to develop or nasty one you'd like to kick it can provide great tools. And if you don't need any habit redesign work, it's an entertaining read!

Dr. Ayala

*Images used with permission, both courtesy of The Power of Habit.