Do you love chocolate so much that you're afraid you might be addicted to it? With so many Americans overweight or obese, public health experts are also asking this question.
Preliminary evidence shows that people can exhibit the three components of addiction when it comes to food:
- Intense craving
- Loss of control over the object of that craving
- Continued use or engagement despite bad consequences
Environmental cues — such as a neighborhood bar for drinkers or the smoking area at work for those trying to quit cigarettes — can trigger craving for people addicted to various substances. Similarly, many people find that seeing or smelling food can trigger their appetite, even if they have just eaten a satisfying meal. But there are also significant differences between food and addictive drugs.
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Chocolate and the Brain
When people joke about being a "chocoholic," it reminds us that not all foods induce cravings. The midnight run for a pint of ice cream is familiar, but I’ve never heard of anyone trolling for celery at that hour.
This observation is consistent with research that shows what we might expect if food were addicting — high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods trigger reward pathways in animal brains. Restricting these foods induced a stress-like response in some of the animals studied.
Chocolate, which contains both sugar and fat, is often used in studies of food addiction. In a study published in Archives of General Psychiatry, for example, researchers at Yale University asked volunteers to fill out questionnaires to assess addictive behavior. The volunteers then underwent brain imaging 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 we use to control the impulse to seek rewards. A similar pattern of brain activity is found in people addicted to drugs.
In another study that used 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 those experienced on drugs.
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How To Enjoy and Resist Chocolate
Whether "chocoholism" exists or not, most of us are stuck with the simple, if often frustrating, advice to eat in moderation.
Health doesn't depend on whether we call it chocolate addiction or not. Good health comes from paying attention to the dozens or hundreds of small but important choices we have to make about food every day.
The next time you feel the pull of chocolate, try paying attention to it. Don't automatically reach for your preferred candy bar. Train yourself to actively decide whether or not to indulge the desire. If you do decide to have chocolate, focus on each bite, slowly, to extend the pleasure in it. Should you choose to wait, enjoy the notion that you're taking good care of yourself.
Do this enough days and you may find you're living a healthier life. One with chocolate, but with many other pleasures, too.
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Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller has an active clinical practice and has been on staff at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for more than 25 years.