By Mary O’Brien, M.D.
Research suggests that chocolate is the most widely craved food. There is a special questionnaire designed with the sole purpose of assessing chocolate cravings. While only 15 percent of men report craving chocolate, approximately 45 percent of women do, and 75 percent of the women indicated that only chocolate would satisfy their food craving. Explanations of why chocolate is desired by so many are numerous and include the possibility that chocolate is addictive, replaces deficient nutrients, triggers the release of mood-altering chemicals, and stimulates the pleasure centers in the brain.
The desire for chocolate appears to be increased by visual cues, such as looking at pictures of chocolate or holding a chocolate bar. Persons who have been subjected to dietary restriction prior to encountering these cues are more likely to experience cravings combined with feelings of guilt, anxiety, and depression. Findings have demonstrated that exercise is effective in reducing chocolate cravings in persons exposed to chocolate cues. Exercise, by reducing stress, may also be effective.
While the reasons behind chocolate cravings may be unclear, the fact that chocolate is a highly desired food is certain. This raises the question of whether giving in to the chocolate urge is harmful. One could certainly argue that a daily dose of chocolate could add to an already precarious calorie balance in some people — or that responding to the craving is establishing a habitual pattern that could manifest in other, more deleterious cravings.
However, if unsweetened chocolate is viewed strictly from a nutritional point of view, it can be described as a food consisting of saturated (palmitic and stearic) and monounsaturated (oleic) fats. Chocolate can also be described as containing starchy and fibrous carbohydrates that have very few simple sugars and few flavonoid antioxidants. Chocolate has several minerals, including magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, and manganese. Chocolate has vitamins A, B-1, B-2, B-3, C, E , and pantothenic acid. Chocolate has roughly 150 kilocalories per ounce. Unfortunately, the preferred form of chocolate for most people is not the unsweetened but the sweetened form, in which the amount of fats, sugars, and calories is increased.
Chocolate also contains the stimulants theobromine and caffeine. Chocolate has the hormone precursors phenylethylamine and tryptophan, which are thought to have mildly anti-depressant effects. These chemicals are present naturally in the cocoa bean from which chocolate is derived. Cocoa products also contain pharmacological substances such as n-acetylethanolamines that have some chemical similarities to cannabis (marijuana), and compounds that stimulate the brain to release an opiate-like substance called anandamide. Despite the scary-sounding nature of these latter two compounds, the pleasurable effects of cocoa and chocolate do not appear to stem from their drug-like effects, but from the hedonic reaction of the mouth to the feel and smell of the combined fat and sugar. For example, when chocolate-cravers were given cocoa capsules they reported no satisfaction at all.
The moral of the chocolate story, like that of many other guilty pleasures in life, is that while a little is possibly acceptable and can even give a boost to physical and emotional health, too much pushes the pendulum in the other direction. The oft-quoted statement in this regard is “moderation in all things,” but perhaps we should also keep in mind the words of William Somerset Maugham: “Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit.”