With so many people joking that they’re ‘chocaholics’ or addicted to chocolate, could our favourite sweet stuff actually be a drug?
Behavioural psychologists have been looking into the impact of chocolate on the brain and have found there are reasons why moderation can sometimes seem like a minor miracle.
A very common craving
Chocolate is the most commonly craved food in women, and many people describe themselves as a ‘chocoholic’ as a way of explaining their overwhelming desire to consume chocolate. While intense cravings might lead some people to think they are actually addicted to the sweet, our preference for chocolate is really a legacy of our ancestors.
We evolved as a species that hunted and gathered foods. That process required a great amount of effort and wasn’t always successful. Therefore high-energy, fatty foods were given great preference in our diets, because our predecessors found that sometimes there was a long waiting time between substantial meals.
Also read: Foods to Keep You Fuller for Longer
Our ancestors have passed this inherent preference down to us, which explains why humans love rich foods.
These days we don’t have to wait long until our next meal. Heading down the confectionary aisle requires little in the way of exertion – yet resisting the urge to demolish one can feel like a huge effort.
Can you really be addicted to chocolate?
The jury is still out on this. Specific evidence for chocolate addiction has not been shown yet, although research is currently being conducted to establish whether junk foods – those high in fat and refined sugars – are addictive.
Sugar addiction has been demonstrated, though, and chocolate (cocoa) contains many other rewarding chemicals that are active within the brain.
Like heroin, cocaine and amphetamines, chocolate stimulates the release of dopamine and serotonin, although to a much lesser extent. The physiological impact of denying yourself chocolate is also different to these drugs. Repeated use of illicit drugs prompts changes in the brain’s reward system, so that when an addict stops taking the drug they go through withdrawal. Physical symptoms include cold sweats, disorientation and depression.
When most people discover there’s no chocolate in the house and the shops are shut, it’s highly unlikely they’ll experience pronounced withdrawal symptoms akin to those of heroin withdrawal. However, they may experience psychological depression and annoyance that they’ll have to make do with a yoghurt or a piece of fruit.
But it does feel like an addiction!
That said, the intensity of some people’s chocolate cravings can make it feel like they’re in the midst of an addiction.
Women in particular frequently report having overwhelming desire for chocolate, particularly at ‘that time of the month’. Cravings are often triggered when we see images of chocolate, so those Cadbury’s adverts during rom-coms on TV are there for a reason – to make us want chocolate.
Equally, if you’re feeling down, the negative emotion itself can trigger a craving because we associate chocolate with lifting our mood. Habits also play an important role in any sort of addiction. Having a chocolate biscuit with your afternoon coffee can make the experience more enjoyable, so you do it again, and it rapidly becomes part of your routine. You may not even be hungry or require that caffeine and chocolate boost, but it’s become part of your standard day so you have it anyway.
Why is chocolate so pleasurable?
Eating chocolate is a unique sensory experience that very few other foods can match, thanks to its rich, sweet, smooth texture and distinct cocoa aroma. It’s illicit qualities also make it attractive. While people might be aware that chocolate’s high calorie and fat content put it in the treat category of your diet, the reality of chocolate being ‘naughty but nice’ makes it even more tempting.
If you find yourself turning to chocolate when you’re feeling down, science backs up its attraction. Chocolate creates an indulgent, comforting feeling that lifts our spirits when we’re down and bolsters our level of happiness when things are going well. Eating it causes the release of neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain that evoke feelings of pleasure.
These chemicals include endorphins, which are in fact a form of morphine made within the brain itself. They cause the ‘high’ experienced during vigorous exercise, love and orgasm, and are also released during a painful experience, because they act as an analgesic.
The neurotransmitter serotonin is another mood enhancer. Chocolate contains the substances tyramine and tryptophan, which are converted to serotonin in the brain. Increased serotonin causes feelings of wellbeing and this is how antidepressant medications such as Prozac relieve depression.
More chemical reactions
With all those elevators at play, it’s hardly surprising that chocolate is reported to lift you out of a bad mood.
Tyramine causes the release of another neurotransmitter – dopamine. Dopamine has an important role in producing enjoyable experiences and also directs our attention to what is evoking this sensation. This means we form a psychological link between a pleasurable food and its appearance, so that just the sight of chocolate can make us want to eat it.
Another chemical compound found in chocolate is anandamide. It’s closely related to the chemical THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the ingredient in marijuana that makes users feel mellow and relaxed. Anandamide causes the release of dopamine in our brains, while other chemicals in chocolate prolong its effect, making those satisfying, rewarding feelings last even longer.
4 tips for resisting that chocolate
Cravings and urges tend to come in waves. If you’re trying to resist the urge, do something else. Go for a run or walk, eat a piece of fruit or make a cup of herbal tea. The activity should keep you occupied long enough for any chocolate craving to pass.
Out of sight
A stimulus is often all it takes to trigger a subconscious response, so “out of sight, out of mind” is a good way of resisting chocolate. If you can’t see the chocolate bar, it’s less likely to tempt you. Avoid the chocolate aisle at the supermarket and use the self-checkout if it’s available so you aren’t tempted by checkout choccies. If you’re given chocolate, give it away!
Identify your triggers
Figure out what makes you crave chocolate. Do you often engage in emotional eating? Are you bored or upset? Are you even hungry? Once you know what sets you off, you’ll be in a better place to override those feelings or take steps to bust that habit.
Put it on layby
Take control and make a deal with yourself, only allow yourself to eat the chocolate after you’ve done some other task or time has passed. Do some cleaning, unload the dishwasher or head out on an errand. If you really want to flex your willpower muscle, try to hold out for 24 hours. If after the delay you still want that chocolate then go for it.
Chocolate is fine as an occasional treat, but only in small quantities. Dark chocolate, which contains a higher cocoa content than milk chocolate, has a greater ratio of rewarding chemicals compared to fats so is a better alternative and will still give you that kick.
If you do decide to indulge in a little chocolate, make sure you pay attention to what you’re eating. Eat slowly and mindfully, concentrating on each mouthful. Savouring the chocolate will prolong the experience, and your brain will enjoy the rewards. By taking control of the experience you will be putting yourself – and not temptation – in the driver’s seat.