Chocolate fact of the day no.2

Is chocolate addictive?

Chocolate_bear

Are you a true ‘chocoholic’?

I never used to eat much chocolate; I liked it but never felt the ‘need’ to have it and probably didn’t really allow myself to have it within my ‘healthy regime’. Then I fell pregnant and life has never been the same.  About 4 months of pretty much constant nausea,  I had to find foods that would help settle my stomach.  Oddly enough Bounty Bars seemed to do the trick! (Along with shortbread biscuits 😉 ) Since then I have never really lost my ‘sweet tooth’ and every now and again I do get that chocolate craving.  I don’t class myself as a chocoholic but I do appreciate why people develop such a strong desires for it. Sometimes  I feel quite guilty for the whole ‘you must practice what you preach‘ thing but then again, life is too short to worry about the small things all the time!

Studies have shown that people can exhibit 3 signs of addiction in relation to food:

  1. Intense craving
  2. Loss of control over the use of it
  3. Continued use despite negative consequences

I don’t often hear about people craving lettuce or cucumber, but this is because we most often crave food that contains sugar or fat and chocolate contains both; it’s no wonder we fall for that sweet, smooth velvety explosion in the mouth, although some purists would say chocolate addiction is not a true addiction. What do you think?

Some will scoff at this weakness for chocolate, passing it off as nothing more than an easily-overcome gluttony; something that could be avoided, if  only you had the willpower……… but I think its more complicated than this.

It is accepted that chocolate has a certain hedonistic appeal, that we gain pleasure from eating it, that it is better than sex but many people also claim it helps reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and depression too.

So what does it contain that can influence our feelings so strongly?  It’s to do with activation of ‘reward pathways’ in the brain; we experience pleasurable feelings so we seek them out again.  Chocolate works on the brain very much in the same way as drugs do.

In addition to sugar and fat, chocolate contains or causes the release of several substances that can make it feel “addictive”. None of these chemicals however are strong enough to explain this feeling acting on their own and research is not particularly convincing either.

  1.  Chocolate contains tryptophan; an essential amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin – a calming chemical messenger that is involved in regulating mood.  Chocolate increases the levels of serotonin, causing feelings of happiness and elation.
  2. Enkephalins; These are our own natural painkillers (that work with endorphins), that give us a sense of euphoria. Chocolate may increase the release of enkephalins in the brain which doesn’t necessarily make us want chocolate more, but   may increase our desire and impulse to eat it.
  3. Theobromine found in chocolate is a close relative of caffeine.  Like caffeine it has stimulant properties and is potentially addictive.  The level of theobromine in chocolate varies from bar to bar though; milk chocolate contains the lowest levels of theobromine so it  is quite unlikely this alone is responsible for chocolate cravings. 
  4. Anandamide also found in chocolate is produced naturally in the brain too.  This chemical activates the same cannabinoid receptors as marijuana that causes a person to feel “high”. Enzymes break down anandamide shortly after it is produced by the brain, thus limiting the duration of the pleasurable “high”. Chocolate does not contain enough anandamide to produce a global high like marijuana and it has also been suggested the anandamide found in chocolate is broken down by stomach acid before it even reaches the blood stream.
  5. Phenylethylamine is a chemical found in the body that is similar to amphetamine. It helps mediate feelings of giddiness, attraction, euphoria and excitement. Researchers believe phenylethylamine causes the brain to release dopamine in the pleasure centers of the brain, which peaks during sex. This may be why women report to prefer chocolate to sex. 

So chocolate contains and causes the release of ‘addictive’ chemicals and I think the power of these chemicals is variable; perhaps depending on personality type? and in more ‘susceptible’ individuals they find it harder to resist these effects.  As with many aspects of nutrition science, we need some more research…………..

Chocolate and migraines coming tomorrow……………

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