#1 Chocoholics! An Addiction or Delusion?

25 05 2010

How many of us find that we have a whole bar of chocolate (or Easter egg based on recent events) one moment, and then an empty wrapper the next? You can glance around all you want but nobody else took your prescious chocolate,  and the melted crumbs on your fingertips and face are all the evidence you need really. It can’t be good, it must be an addiction… right?

I think it’s fair to say that a majority, if not all of us have felt that deep, demanding desire for chocolate, and have possibly labelled ourselves a “chocoholic” at some point in time.

Reports say that chocolate is the most common food substance people crave, particularly women to no surprise, and most cravings tend to be under emotional distress (“comfort” eating).  The average British person consumes approximately 14kg of confectionary annually, and a huge 9kg of that is solely on chocolate. Furthermore, 50% of ALL chocolate manufactured goes primarily to America! So what is it that makes chocolate so globally irresistible to us?

Many of us believe that these cravings are physical as components found in the chocolate simply make us crave it beyond our control – like a yummy kind of nicotine. There is actually some truth behind this as chocolate does contain mood-enhancing compounds such as phenylamine, theobromine and caffeine.

However, it is argued that the small levels of these compounds found in chocolate are not enough to affect our moods, in which case the cravings are all psychological. Therefore the term “chocoholic” could be seriously misleading, despite what we may want to believe!

Therefore, because the constituents of chocolate are not enough to satisfy our craving, it may be  other factors that keep us attracted to the substance instead – namely the oh-so-devilish sweetness and fat content!

An interesting study carried out by Benton et al. (1998) showed that guilt plays a large factor in linking mood to our chocolate cravings. Those that consume a large amount of chocolate during a binge for example often feel immense guilt afterwards, contributing to low self-esteem and a depressive, negative mood. (Sound familiar?) Furthermore, the effect of these negative moods only influence us to consume an even higher dose of chocolate, just to make ourselves feel better!

Another factor taken into account is the aftermath of dieting as obviously those who diet are more likely binge eat. Studies show 70% of bulimic women experience such cravings. In fact it could be assumed that immense craving for foods and guilt afterwards could signal the onset of an eating disorder, so control your cravings!

The main factor I believe that most woman can confess to is the cravings that studies show 61% of us feel at our premenstrual stage. During our periods, the body mass index increases resulting in an increase in energy and therefore sweet, fatty food.

So the above clearly shows the link between the mind and out chocolate cravings, however we should not dismiss entirely the biological effect of chocolate. After all, the mood-enhancing constituents are present in chocolate, do they have no effect whatsoever?

Well, evidence suggests that phenylamine present in chocolate may release dopamine. Dopamine itself is associated with “passionate love” as women who undergo such emtion tend to release large amounts of it. Dopamine also plays a role in drug addiction in the brain by stimulating the “reward centres”, thus suggesting that if chocolate supplied enough phenylamine, it would definately induce a biological addiction. However, sadly, or thankfully, it does not as even after a binge the compound is broken down so rapidly by the body that it would have no effect on the central nervous system.

Another constituent of chocolate is caffeine, the effects of which the public is well aware of. Doses of over 200mg of caffeine can effect perception and mood, and some studies show doses as little as 32mg can improve reaction time. Therefore, those chocolates that do have high doses may reinforce weak effects, as would a binge of normal chocolate. However, this still would not ontribute to the cravings themselves.

So in conclusion, chocolate does not act biologically as a drug as there are not enough drug-enhancing compounds within it. The responses we feel towards chocolate itself are purely psychological as it tastes good and we naturally prefer things that are high in fat and sweetness. Chocolate can be described as the perfect food for this as it has ideal ratio of fat and sugar that studies show is most preferable by the body at 24.7% and 7.6%, thus making it positively reinforcing.

As far as chocolate withdrawal goes, external influences such as time and place are important. Any pleasurable food substance we cut out from our lives will almost always cause us to naturally crave it more. After all, everybody wants what they can’t have!

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