The Sweet Science of Chocolate Cravings

Valentine’s Day may be long gone, but that doesn’t mean your chocolate cravings have melted away. Who needs a seasonal holiday as an excuse to unwrap nature’s most-craved antidepressant? Chocolate is the most frequently craved food, with 40% of women and 15% of men claiming chocolate yearnings (Yanovski 2003). So, are chocolate cravings based in science or psychology“ or both?

Chocolate comprises a complex medley of chemicals that give rise to its unique taste, texture and aroma. Over 400 distinct substances contribute to chocolate’s familiar melt-in-your-mouth smoothness and sweetly unique odor. Chocolate has orosensory properties that enhance our urge for sensory gratification: Simply seeing or smelling it can trigger cravings.

Like drug addictions, food cravings alter potent neurotransmitters that regulate mood. Cocoa butter changes from solid to liquid at mouth temperature, providing the characteristic melt-in-your-mouth quality. This sensation causes the brain to release a flood of endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers, producing temporary feelings of warmth and euphoria. The analgesic effect of chocolate may be a source of sensory addiction for some.

The sugar in chocolate stimulates serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood and provides a sense of calm and well-being. Within minutes of consumption, the chocolate eater may feel a balmy glow. Chocolate may help chase the blues by raising serotonin levels, though the science behind the “serotonin hypothesis” has been mixed (Parker, Parker & Brochie 2006).

Chocolate contains psychoactive agents that can change mood. Theobromine, a chemical similar to caffeine, is absorbed quickly, mildly stimulating the nervous system to increase the heart rate. Chocolate nibblers may enjoy a mild energy surge. Some professed “chocolate lovers” may actually be in love. Chocolate is rich in phenylethylamine (PEA) another stimulant. PEA levels are enhanced in people in love, so eating chocolate may temporarily mimic the love vibe. Cannabinoid-like chemicals in chocolate may trigger a marijuana-like high, but only if you eat 27 pounds in one sitting (DiMarzo 1998).

Good Vibrations

In a one-of-kind experiment, researchers conducted a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study investigating whether chocolate exposed to “good intentions” would enhance mood more than plain chocolate. Good intentions were “infused” into dark chocolate via meditation by Buddist Monks and a Mongolian shaman. Results showed that one ounce of Intentional Chocolate per day for three consecutive days increased well-being, vigor and energy by an average of 67% (Radin Hayssen & Walsh, 2007). Note that the results have yet to be repeated in similar trials.

In a one-of-kind experiment, researchers conducted a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study investigating whether chocolate exposed to “good intentions” would enhance mood more than plain chocolate. Good intentions were “infused” into dark chocolate via meditation by Buddist monks and a Mongolian shaman. Results showed that eating one ounce of “intentional chocolate” per day for three consecutive days increased well-being, vigor and energy by an average of 67% (Radin, Hayssen & Walsh 2007).

Chocolate can be rich in calories, but there are health benefits associated with eating moderate amounts.

Dark chocolate:

  • Is packed with protective antioxidants like flavonoids, which may reduce the risk of heart disease (Corti et al 2009).
  • Reduces blood pressure, inflammation, platelet clotting and stroke risk in women (Corti et al 2009; di Giuseppe et al 2008; Larsson, Virtamo & Wolk 2011; Ried et al 2010).
  • Is an excellent source of magnesium and copper, both essential to bone health, cell function and neurotransmitters.

So there you have it: An ounce of dark-chocolate indulgence may be just what the doctor ordered!

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Martina Cartwright is a registered dietitian (R.D.) with a Ph.D. in Nutritional Science and Biomolec... more less
References

Corti, R., et al. 2009. Contemporary reviews in cardiovascular medicine. Cocoa and cardiovascular health. Circulation, 119, 1433-41.

Di Giuseppe, R., et al. 2008. Regular Consumption of Dark Chocolate is Associated with Low Serum Concentrations of C-Reactive Protein in a Healthy Italian Population. Journal of Nutrition, 138 (10), 1939-45.

DiMarzo, V., et al. 1998. Trick or treat from food endocannabinoids? Nature, 396, (6593), 636-7.

Larsson, S.C., Virtamo, J., & Wolk, A. 2011. Chocolate consumption and risk of stroke in women. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 58 (17), 1828-9.

Parker, G., Parker, I., & Brochie, H. 2006. Mood state effects of chocolate. Journal of Affective Disordorders, 92 (2-3), 149-59.

Radin, D., Hayssen, G., Walsh, J. 2007. Effects of intentionally enhanced chocolate on mood. Explore, 3, 485-92.

Ried, K., et al. 2010. Does chocolate reduce blood pressure? A meta analysis. BMC Medicine, 8, 39.

Yanovski, S. 2003. Sugar and fat: cravings and aversions. Journal of Nutrition, 133 (3), 835S-37S.

March 2012

© 2012 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

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