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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.)