Why We Crave Chocolate
When I’m feeling a bit down and out of control I reach for chocolate. It’s always chocolate, Rolo’s, Aero, Tex, Chuckles and Cadbury’s Hazelnut and Topdeck slabs are among my favourites. Somehow, within a few minutes it lifts my spirits and I start to feel better
That’s only a short term effect however, until I realise how many calories I have consumed and how much fat I have just added to my hips, not to mention the persistent cellulite thigh zone that has never cooperated with any diet plan or fad eating habit I have tried.
I’m definitely not a lone recovering chocoholic in a sea of junk food addicts.
Most of us know that chocolate is junk food and junk food increases your risk of developing chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and the list goes on. Studies have shown that there is a link between chocolate consumption and depression. Maybe you already know this.
Dr Natalie Rose and her colleagues from the University of California carried out some research and published the results in the peer-reviewed medical journal Archives of Internal Medicine. The study looked at the relationship between the level of depression and the number of chocolates consumed during the week. A serving considered to be 28g of chocolate or a small bar.
Their findings revealed that people who screen positive on a depression screening scale eat more chocolate than those who do not. The higher their score the more chocolate they ate.
But if chocolate has such detrimental effects on our health why do we keep eating it?
Why do we continuously reach for it when our stress levels climb?
The answer to this question may surprise you.
In his book Why Humans Like Junk Food, Steven A. Witherly, PhD looks at the inside story on why we crave our favourite foods. He is a veteran in the food and nutraceutical field with a PhD Human Nutrition, M.S. Food Science with an emphasis on the Sensory Evaluation of Food and B.S. Dietetics degree and many years’ experience researching why we find certain foods tastier and crave them more than others.
According to Witherley, much research has been done into why we like the taste of chocolate and the theories fall into one of three camps:
“• Chocolate is a comfort food.
• Chocolate is loaded with salt, fat, and sugar (junk food).
• Chocolate contains pharmacological substances that:
Are similar to “love” hormones
Are similar to marijuana
Are non-specific psychoactives.”
Chocolate contains a neurochemical called phenylethylamine which is similar in structure to amphetamine, and this chemical is suspected to be responsible for the love chemistry. But in actual fact it is more likely a combination of sensory factors (taste), satiety factors (calories) and psychoactive effects (triggered by the theobromine content).
Chocolate is a high salt, high fat and high sugar food.
In Joel Glenn Brenner’s book, The Emperors of Chocolate, MIT researchers are quoted as saying “When animals are given access to sweet and fatty foods, they go “mad” with ecstacy.”1 The research by the director of human nutrition at the University of Michigan, Dr Adam Drewnowski has found that cravings for high sugar, high fat foods are brain-opioid based, and the greatest pleasure food of all is probably chocolate.
Chocolate is high in sugar
Milk chocolate is approximately 50% sugar (Sucrose) by weight that has been emulsified into solid form and that far outweighs the pleasure sensations provided by any other form of sweetener. After the sugar induced insulin rush you experience after a bite of chocolate, glucose is stored in the liver or immediately converted to fat. This insulin rush also increases the amount of serotonin in the brain. The happy chemical responsible for mood, appetite, emotions, sleep cycles, digestion, memory etc.
Chocolate is high in fat
The other 50% weight of chocolate if made up of mostly fat, another substance that humans crave and constantly overeat as our digestive systems are not keenly sensitised to fat intake allowing us to easily consume excess. Fat intake also stimulates gut hormones responsible for “satisfaction” and activation of the brain’s pleasure circuits. When you combine the antidepressant effect of the fat with the opioid stimulating effect of the sugar it’s not surprising that chocolate is such a powerful mood elevating substance.
Chocolate melts quickly in the mouth at body temperature, which stimulates the production of saliva. This process is also pleasure inducing in itself as the chocolate changes from solid to liquid form and releases a rush of sensory tastes and exciting flavours. All you need to do is suck on a block of chocolate slowly to experience this effect first hand for yourself.
Chocolate is High in Caloric Density
We are wired to prefer, crave and enjoy foods with high caloric density and chocolate comes out tops, right next to potato chips and Doritos.
Chocolate Has Psychoactive Properties
There are many psychoactive compounds found in chocolate like Phenylethylamine(s), Anandamide precursors (Anandamide breakdown inhibitors (N-acylethanolamines) , Serotonin, Tyramine, Tryptamine, Theobromine, Caffeine, Tetrahydro-beta-carbolines, Casomorphins etc.
Without getting too technical, and delving into the scientific function of each compound I think it is suffice to say that the unique texture, taste and smell of chocolate with its high fat and high sugar content is responsible for activating the dopamine and opioid receptors in the brain. Responsible for the addictive cravings, pleasurable effects and the anti-depressant action similar to that of modern day anti-depressant’s like Prozac.
Now understanding the science behind the cravings are we helpless, or can we put measures into place to reverse and control the addiction?
What has worked for me?
Cutting out chocolate from my diet completely in all its tasty forms is the only way to control the cravings. Letting a small block melt in my mouth is enough to trigger all these responses and send me into a feeding frenzy.
Replacing the chocolate with other healthier sweet treats helps satisfy the cravings such as frozen nice-creams, frunnata bowls, date balls etc.
Up the green vegetables, can’t explain this one but it definitely works. The more vegetables and salads you eat the less chocolate cravings you have guaranteed.
This “sweet” cycle is a lot like the traditional chicken and egg saga, what came first the chicken or the egg?
The chocolate or the depression?
The Emperors of Chocolate: Inside The Secret World of Hershey and Mars, Joel Glenn Brenner, Broadway Books, 2000. ISBN: 0767904575