The Chocoholic's Survival Guide
Crazy for chocolate? Here's how to keep it from sabotaging your diet.
More than once, you've driven to a convenience store at midnight just to get
a chocolate "fix." Maybe you even bought a few extra items, like
batteries and milk, to disguise your true intentions. Later, you carefully
disposed of the telltale candy wrappers so your family, partner, or roommate
wouldn't suspect what you'd been up to.
Does this mean you're a "chocoholic"?
Though chocolate-lovers who have gone to such lengths may feel a kinship
with alcoholics or drug addicts, there's little scientific evidence that
chocolate is actually addictive.
"There's recent research on brain chemistry that suggests people might
become addicted to foods, but there's no solid data," says Gerard J.
Musante, PhD, a pioneer in the treatment of obesity. "Any pleasurable
experience produces those kinds of brain chemistries. It's part of the human
What's most important, he believes, is that telling yourself you're
"addicted" is self-defeating.
"You'll think overindulging in chocolate isn't your fault, that the
devil made you do it," says Musante, founder of the Structure House
residential weight loss program in Durham, N.C. "Thinking in that way
doesn't allow you to gain control over the problem."
What Makes Us Crave?
Addiction aside, there's no denying that chocolate cravings are certainly
real -- and women are especially vulnerable.
Cindy Moore, MS, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says
it's not clear exactly what might cause these chocolately pangs of desire.
"There needs to be more research to determine what's going on, and it
may be there are multiple things going on," says Moore, director of
nutrition therapy at The Cleveland Clinic.
She summarizes several theories:
- Deprivation. If you love the taste of chocolate but forbid yourself to have
it, you may crave it all the more.
- Stress reduction. In response to stress, the body produces adrenaline (the
"fight or flight" response that dates back to our prehistoric
ancestors). Carbohydrates provide an immediate shot of energy. And for many of
us, of course, sugary chocolate is the carbohydrate of choice.
- Hormonal changes. Hormones fluctuate with the menstrual cycle. When
estrogen rises and progesterone and serotonin fall, women can experience
depression and irritability that lead to carbohydrate cravings.
- Brain chemicals. Neuropeptide Y (NPY) is a brain chemical that increases
carbohydrate cravings as it peaks in the morning and when we diet. Another
brain chemical that may be involved is galanin, which peaks at night and which
promotes fat intake.
- Chocolate's ingredients. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine and fat, both
of which increase the body's production of endorphins, chemicals that lead to
feelings of well-being. Chocolate also contains the stimulants theobromine and
caffeine. And the sugar in chocolate boosts levels of the brain chemical
serotonin, producing feelings of relaxation.
What's Eating You?
Musante says that people being treated for obesity at Structure House learn
to understand why they have certain cravings, starting with their earliest
memory of that food.