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 condition."
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.