The HP Diet, Week 4: Chocolate

Fourth installment of weekly “Harry Potter Diet” series.

Someone is going to have to come to a consensus on chocolate -- I can't have my heart played with like this. I lived the vast majority of my life understanding that chocolate is both:

A. The most delicious food on planet Earth

and

B. Terrible for you

It figured, right? We all know the formula: Stuff that's good for you tastes bad; stuff that's bad for you tastes good. The formula isn't absolute, but it's a pretty good general guideline. There's a reason why Popeye's power came from spinach. There's a reason why you have to play the "Here's the plane coming in for a landing," game with your toddler for carrots or broccoli. There’s a reason why we know, from our earliest awakening, that chocolate is something yummy and slightly forbidden.

As I broke things down for the Harry Potter Diet, I made the determination that my weight problem really didn't have much to do with desserts. I love desserts of all kinds -- cakes, cookies, candy bars, ice cream, and, yes, pies, Michael Schur -- but even at my unhealthiest, I didn't eat them much. This was my one concession to healthy living. I'd inhale pasta and fries and pizza and the entire junk food catalogue like the world's grocery store was about to close, guzzle Super Big Gulps of Diet Coke and consider exercise standing on the moving sidewalk at the airport*, but when dessert time came around, I'd hold out my hand as if to say, "Oh, no, I just can't. Watching the figure, you know."

*I’m joking about this -- I have never once stood on a moving sidewalk unless blocked by people in front of me. Standing on it actually drives me crazy.

So when I made my choice to wear the Harry Potter shirt, I knew that I was removing chocolate from my life, at least for a while. I was OK with that. As much as I love chocolate -- and that is a love that rises above words -- I felt like it was the Cowardly Lion of foods, the one I would miss but not all that much. You know how at the end of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy turns to the Scarecrow and says, "I think I'll miss you most of all?"*

*The great Gary Gulman has a hilarious bit on this.

This led me to making a list of the people Dorothy would miss, in order.

  1. Scarecrow. No doubt about it, they bonded.

  2. Tin Man. I think Dorothy found the Tin Man to be a little bit too emotional even before he got a heart, but she admired him overall.

  3. Glinda, the Good Witch. I don't think Dorothy appreciated the whole mind game with the ruby-red slippers. And calling herself a Good Witch in the first place is pretty cocky. But Glinda was popular, and she did create the snow that woke Dorothy up.

  4. The mayor of Munchkinland. He was working on improving Munchkinland education.

  5. The Wizard. He was an old Kansas man himself!

  6. The leader of the Wicked Witch army. "Hail to Dorothy! The Wicked Witch is Dead!"

  7. The Oz doorman. Nice guy.

  8. The Cowardly Lion. Let's face it, he annoyed the heck out of everybody.

In any case, what was I talking about? Oh yeah, chocolate -- I'd miss it, but I'd miss other stuff more. It wasn't hard for me to accept that if I was going to lose enough weight to wear the shirt, I'd have to cut out chocolate. The mental jump was much harder for other things, such as Diet Coke.

Chocolate was out. Great. That was settled.

And then, suddenly, I found myself reading all this stuff about how chocolate is good for you.

This stuff has been out there for years. I was vaguely aware of the stories and studies promoting the health benefits of dark chocolate. But it was only after I started this Harry Potter Diet, only after I cut out everything bad -- after I stopped eating bread, pasta, potatoes and sweets, and cut down on red meat and the like, after I stopped drinking Diet Coke and any other drink besides water, after I worked my way down to two meals a day and ate less food than I ever could have imagined -- that the chocolate studies began to infiltrate my life.

[caption id="attachment_22957" align="aligncenter" width="403"] Good for you? Bad for you? Who knows?[/caption]

There's a book by Will Clower, PhD, called Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight. I bought this book. Obviously, I bought this book. We live in a time of bubbles, right? We live in a time when we stake out our position and then seek and consume as much stuff as we can that confirms our position. This is true of everything, of politics, sports, movies, television, music, books, on and on. We want to believe in the stuff we want to believe in. And I wanted to believe that I could lose weight AND eat lots of chocolate.

The book is -- well, I'm not going to review it because I don't know enough health stuff to review anything on the subject. I will point out that a few of the claims in it seemed a bit shaky, beginning with:

"Did you know that people who eat chocolate every day weigh less than those who don't?"

This was the big claim of the book -- it's the big quote on the back cover. People who eat chocolate every day weigh less than people who don't? Do people who have, over many years, imprinted perfect butt-cheek molds on their couches weigh less than marathon runners? Break this down in your mind. How many people do you know who eat chocolate EVERY SINGLE DAY? And of those people, how many would consider super healthy? Let's say I'm dubious.

I also noticed that some of the too-good-to-be-true promises of the book begin to fade as it goes along. This is a common theme that I’m finding among diet books. I also bought The 8-Hour Diet, by David Zinczenko, and it has been a huge influence on my lifestyle. It's a good book, but it begins with the general premise that you can eat anything you want as long as you eat it within an eight-hour window. ("Watch the pounds disappear without watching what you eat!") But then, suddenly, well, you might want to watch what you eat, I mean, you can't just eat ANYTHING you want, I mean, and, if you really want to get into it, you should probably eat vegetables and avoid junk food etc.

The same was true of "Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight" -- the restrictions became more and more limiting as the book went along, and the promises, particularly for weight loss, became less and less colossal. The central promise is that you can lose "up to 20 pounds in eight weeks." I've always found "up to" to be one of the funnier concepts of life. Stores often promise to say you "up to 70%." This promise includes zero percent.

But the book did inspire me and my wife Margo to go out and buy some very, very dark chocolate bars (min. 70% Cacao, most 80%). And we allow ourselves a square per day.

This was going just fine until last week when Vox decided to run this story -- roughly 24 different people sent it to me -- about how so much (all?) of the studies advancing the healthiness of chocolate are funded by (big surprise here) chocolate companies. And that these studies are exaggerated, at best. And that the media furthers the nonsense because it's good business to promote chocolate. And that chocolate isn't really a superfood. And that you would have to eat a ton of dark chocolate to get the health benefits, but then the calories would get you, and so on and so on and so on and ...

They've got to stop doing this to me.

Here's where I come down on this: I'm going to keep eating my square of dark chocolate. If I'm being honest, I never really bought into the chocolate health thing, all due respect to Will Clower, PhD. I never thought it would help me lose weight or make my heart healthier. I didn't know that chocolate companies were behind many of the studies, but only because I never thought about it.

But I do believe something -- I believe we crave happiness. We crave it in all capital letters, HAPPINESS, the joys of family, connection, love, kindness, beauty, faith, nature, emotion and the rest. But we crave it in small letters too, happiness, a great song, a thrilling sports moment, a finished crossword puzzle, a key addition to a collection, a riveting paragraph, a small discovery that opens the mind, a little piece of chocolate.

Every day -- and I will say I'm still on this diet every day, relentlessly, continually, with no shortcuts or exceptions -- there comes that moment when I can have my square of dark chocolate. It's 100 calories or less, and it's gone in only a few seconds, but it makes me happy. I have to believe that's good for me, somehow. Or, anyway, I choose to believe it.

Next: Stepping on the scale.