If you’re a chocoholic, the news out of England is tantalizing: middle-aged and older adults who eat up to 3.5 ounces of chocolate a day (that’s more than two standard Hershey bars) seem to have lower rates of heart disease than those who spurn chocolate. At least that was the conclusion of a study that followed the health of nearly 21,000 resident of Norfolk, England, for 11 years. Most of the previous studies on the chocolate-heart connection found that only dark chocolate offered any cardiovascular protection. In the Norfolk study, any type of chocolate, including milk chocolate, seemed to have the same beneficial effect. I routinely write my patients a prescription for exercise, and sometimes for eating more vegetables and fruits. I won’t be writing any prescriptions for chocolate in the foreseeable future. But I won’t be telling them not to eat chocolate—in moderation of course.
The term “chocoholic,” usually said with a smile, actually nods to a potentially serious question: can a person become addicted to food? There are three essential components of addiction: intense craving, loss of control over the object of that craving, and continued use or engagement despite bad consequences. People can exhibit all three of these in their relationships with food. It’s most common with foods that deliver a lot of sugar and fat — like chocolate — because they 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. 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.