Do you have a chocolate bar in your fridge at all times for those "emergency situations" when you desperately need something sweet or you'll die? You rip open the package and promise yourself you're only going to have one little square... oh wait, just one more... nope, there goes the whole damn bar. Is it an addiction? Or is it just really, really good? Let's talk.
Chocolate has played both the superhero and the supervillain in national health and wellness conversations recently. One day, word on the dessert aisle was that cocoa could benefit heart health, and the next, we were told that chocolate is—no joke—akin to heroin. What gives?
The research can get confusing, but one thing is for sure: We (the general population) love chocolate—and sometimes, we love it in absurdly large quantities. It's not just since Hershey's started its factory either. Apparently, our obsession dates back to ancient times, when cacao beans were offered up in Mayan dowries (nice to see that our wooing techniques haven’t changed all that much) and even exchanged as currency in some early American civilizations (now that would be the dream).
Today, it's become the most commonly craved food for teens in the U.S., and even us adults gobble up about nine and a half pounds per year. Not surprising when you think about how much we self-prescribe chocolate to treat general sadness; give it to others to show affection; and keep emergency stashes on-hand for late nights, breakups, or particularly bad bouts of PMS.
So, yes, we’re well aware that we’ve got a chocolate infatuation. The larger question is—why? And, for some of us, can it spiral out of control?
Are You Addicted to Chocolate?
With the national obesity rate rising above 35 percent, scientists have been digging deeper into the ways in which food affects the brain—and, in turn, how the brain can dictate our intake of food. Symptoms of food addiction can look a lot like drug addiction: going to great lengths to acquire the goods (midnight chocolate run, anyone?), continuing to eat despite negative consequences, and trying and failing to quit on several occasions.
But the similarities don’t stop there—both addictive drugs and particularly tasty foods have been found to cause a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, in a region of the brain that’s been dubbed the “reward circuit."
After a while, the reward circuit starts reacting to just thinking about these pleasurable things. Once you start associating these feel-good things with good feels, your brain begins to demand them. In one study, a group of women exhibited this response while looking at a picture of a chocolate milkshake.
Also seen in drug addicts, this anticipatory dopamine rush is thought to play a role in driving addictive behavior. What happens once a craving is satisfied? The women who were given the chocolate milkshake after looking at its picture showed a decrease in activity in the part of the brain associated with control and willpower. This is probably why we can swear off chocolate for life, only to find ourselves devouring a brownie one hour later. (Not that we would know.)
Although you can begin to develop these kinds of relationships with lots of different foods (and all sorts of feel-good human experiences), chocolate seems to have some qualities that scientists and chocoholics alike have pinpointed to be particularly seductive.
This could just be that the chocolate we eat is typically loaded with sugar and fat, but according to one recent study, it may have to do with its interaction with a particular molecule called enkephalin that exists in our brain, looks a lot like endorphins, and may be causing our addiction.
In this case, researchers gave rats a few M&Ms to munch on (don’t try this at home!) and, lo and behold, enkephalin levels in the brain started to rise (yes, they are rats, not humans, but it's still interesting). To see the effects of the mystery molecule, scientists injected the rats with more enkephalin, and they started binging like there was no tomorrow, indicating that this substance that’s naturally in chocolate is also associated with compulsive eating. In other words, if you give a mouse a (chocolate) cookie, you better have more on hand.
Chocolate Vs. Drugs
But while there are a lot of similarities between drug use and chocolate consumption, there are also some key differences. For one thing, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence to show that we can develop chocolate dependence in the same way that we can develop drug dependence. And even though some of us think it's a medical issue, menstrual chocolate cravings and “chocoholism” are pretty predominantly American phenomena. While other countries produce and consume more chocolate than the U.S., very few others feel as simultaneously passionate and defenseless about it as we do.
Although eating chocolate nonstop might not be quite the same thing as having a drug addiction, it’s still important to examine the factors—physiological, cultural, and environmental—that might increase our consumption to the point of abuse. Chocolate is often depicted as a go-to indulgence as well as something we’re supposed to feel guilty about, and the image of the helpless chocoholic surfaces again and again, often in good fun, in advertising and across the media. So maybe the feeling that we’re going cuckoo for cocoa comes, at least partly, from outside of our bodies too.
Seeking (and Getting) the Reward
We’re reward-seeking creatures by nature—we had to be at one point to survive long enough to throw down in the gene pool. Sugary, high-fat foods like chocolate are natural rewards, so our brain responds to them by saying, “get more of that—if you can!” But now, we can. Pretty much all the time. Especially in a society where we can find chocolate of all shapes and sizes everywhere, even delivered ASAP to our doorsteps.
And with research suggesting that constant exposure to stress can hike up your intake of highly caloric and fatty foods, it’s safe to say we’re living in an environment where all signs point to chocolate. After we get that dopamine rush, we feel we’ve done a bad, bad thing. Yet somehow, we do it again.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that chocolate alone isn’t the enemy. It’s got some addictive properties for sure, but so do exercise and sex. (And we’re definitely not going to tell you to cut those out of your life!) As frustratingly inconclusive as this sounds, there are a lot of elements at play here—but having an awareness that there are a lot of things pushing us to eat (and overeat) the sweet treat might at least help us develop a healthier relationship with it.