Michael Craig Miller, M.D.

Can you become addicted to chocolate?

You’ve probably heard the term “chocoholic” before. Maybe you’ve even used it to describe your devotion to what the Mayans and Aztecs believed was a food of the gods. Usually said jokingly, “chocoholic” actually nods to a potentially serious question: can a person become addicted to chocolate, or food in general? It’s an appropriate question to ask on Valentine’s Day, the feast day of chocolate.

There are three essential components of addiction:

  • intense craving
  • loss of control over the object of that craving
  • continued use or engagement despite bad consequences.

Several studies have shown that people can exhibit all three of these in their relationships with food.

Take craving, for example. The midnight run for a pint of ice cream is a familiar scenario. But I’ve never heard of anyone trolling for celery at that hour. That’s likely because foods that deliver a lot of sugar and fat — like chocolate — trigger reward pathways in the brain. In some animal studies, restricting these foods induced a stress-like response consistent with the “withdrawal” response seen in addiction.

Chocolate, which contains both sugar and fat, is often used in studies of food addiction. In a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers at Yale University asked volunteers to fill out questionnaires to assess addictive behavior. The volunteers then had their brains imaged while being able to see and smell, and then finally drink, a chocolate milkshake. Participants who scored higher on the food addiction scale experienced a surge of activity in the part of the brain that regulates cravings and rewards when presented with the chocolate milkshake. Once they started drinking it, they showed markedly reduced activity in areas of the brain that control impulses to seek rewards. A similar pattern of brain activity is found in people addicted to drugs.

In another study, this one involving candy, researchers at Drexel University concluded that people experienced psychological reactions while eating chocolate — such as intense pleasure and craving for more — that were similar to reactions caused by some drugs.

Obesity and addiction

Much of the scientific discussion about food addiction has been sparked by the epidemic of obesity sweeping the U.S. and many other countries. Many people who are overweight crave food, lose control over eating, and experience negative health effects that should, but don’t, serve as a deterrent. The influence of stress on eating provides another link between food and addictive behavior. Those who have broken free of an addiction tend to relapse when they are under stress — partly because they begin craving the comfort they experienced while using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. In the same way, stress is often what prompts people to go off a diet. (To learn more about food addiction, Yale’s  Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has some interesting background information. Rudd Center researchers have also created a food addiction survey that is being used in various ongoing studies.)

Despite intriguing parallels, however, there are also significant differences between drugs of addiction and food. The most obvious one is that food is necessary for survival, while addictive drugs are not. And this makes treatment more of a challenge too. It’s not possible to go off food, as it were, cold turkey.

Enjoy, and resist

Whether “chocoholism” exists or not, most of us are stuck with the simple, if often frustrating, advice to eat in moderation. In fact, health depends less on what we call our behavior than it does on paying attention to the hundreds of small but important choices we make every day.

The next time you feel the pull of chocolate, pay attention to it. But instead of automatically reaching for your preferred candy bar or fudgy ice cream, take a few moments to actively decide whether or not to indulge the desire. If you decide to have chocolate, focus on each bite, slowly, to extend the pleasure in it. If you decide to wait, enjoy the notion that you’re taking good care of yourself. (You can take the same approach to alcohol, cigarettes, and food in general if you are trying to lose weight.)

Do this often enough and you may find you’re living a healthier life. One with chocolate, but with many other pleasures, too.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the Harvard Mental Health Letter.)

Comments:

  1. Healthier Choice

    Or if you’re a smoker as well as a chocoholic, you can can deal with two addictions at once. I picked up an electronic cigarette kit and some chocolate flavour e-liquid. I wasn’t really expecting much but was pleasantly surprised. Not only have I cut out cigarettes but I don’t feel as much need to binge-snack late at night when the combined nicotine/chocolate cravings hit. I mean I still do get the cravings but they’ve definitely gone down. I’ve given up smoking twice before for about 6 months each time and put on about 4kgs each time, mainly through compensating by eating Snickers bars and warm choc brownies to distract myself from the cigarette withdrawals. But since my most recent and hopefully final quit attempt using these chocolate e-cigs, I’ve only gained about half a kilo in 6 weeks so I’m pretty happy with that. Hope I can keep it up! Anyone looking quit chocs and/or cigs, seriously, give this method a try. Most countries have e-cigs legally available, just do search online to find a local store or have them delivered to you. Good luck!

  2. Lavindra Ravith

    I agree entirely that addiction to food and medicines is sort of totally different. As a healer, my approach to addiction can vary between the 2

  3. Rowena White

    I agree that chocolate has a two edged appeal — wonderful taste that gives both sugar (carbohydrates) and fat; two of our most enjoyed food groups. But addiction is a craving for something we think we must have to feel good! However, I would bet we could feel just as good if we ate some other fat and sugar food(s)that have good taste too. My first option would be to try caramel(sugar) and old fashioned cocktail peanuts, lightly salted (fat).

  4. Susannah

    I agree entirely that addiction to food and drugs is quite different. As a therapist, my approach to addiction will vary between the two. Stopping smoking, for example, can be done by correcting the subconscious habits and associations developed with smoking, and disposing of the subconscious belief that nicotine is needed or useful in someway. With food, we need address more underlying causes as to why someone feels the need to overeat or experiences uncontrollable cravings.

  5. Anonymous

    Thank you so much for this research.This is really a great reaserch on chocolates on how we should addicted to the chocolates.

  6. srinivas

    great reaserch on chocolates that how we should addicted to the chocolates a a athank you very much…By fittodo

  7. Olumide Oluwasegun

    Chocolates contain chemicals that make you addictive if you indulge it too much. Habits take 7 weeks to form so, the “sufferer” must be committed to letting go of dependence on it

  8. nelnel

    Interesting resarch, and useful tips for managing cravings for sweets and other unhealthy habits.

  9. Ben Brown

    Processed food is the main factor in modern obesity. If you ate nothing but lean meat, fruits and vegetables all day and 2 oz of dark chocolate was your only empty calories I doubt a body’d be fat.

    • Japs

      I agree with him, even vegetables are full of chemicals. You better eat organic foods but it cost much. Sometimes eating too much sweets can make you lose your appetite when you get old.