I quite often see individuals in my practice who find themselves irresistibly drawn to eat none-too-healthy foods such as chocolate cake. I was therefore interested to read a recent study in which the addictive nature of this oft-favoured food was assessed. Sophisticated scans revealed that the sight and taste of chocolate cake caused considerable activation in the brain, particularly in the areas associated with addiction. These brain-teasing effects were very similar to those recorded in people contemplating their next snort of cocaine. It seems that, in terms of addictive potential, there's a relatively thin line between cake and coke.
This research got me thinking about why chocolate seems to be the most commonly craved food. Some scientists have suggested that this is related to chocolate's content of mind-altering substances such as caffeine, phenylethylamine (both stimulants) and anandamine (a marijuana-like substance). Though chocolate looks like the ideal food for speed freaks and dopeheads alike, the levels of psychoactive substances present in cocoa appear to be too low to explain its addictive qualities.
It is often said that people who crave chocolate are suffering from a deficiency in magnesium, which is found in high concentration in cocoa. Yet one study found that white chocolate (which contains no cocoa) helped satisfy chocolate cravings, but that this effect was not enhanced by the addition of actual cocoa. This research suggests that the yen for chocolate does not come from a need for magnesium. It also adds weight to the idea that the drug cocktail contained in cocoa has little or no part to play in its addictive potential.
Another theory concerns chocolate's ability to boost 'feel-good' brain chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins. The fact that many individuals find that an episode of low mood can precede a chocolate binge appears to support this proposed chemical mechanism. However, a common cause of low mood is lower-than-normal levels of sugar in the bloodstream (ie hypoglycaemia), which can provoke an intense desire to eat something sweet. The role of hypoglycaemia in chocolate craving is also suggested by the fact that chocoholics often exhibit other symptoms suggestive of blood-sugar imbalance, including mood swings and fluctuating energy levels (with a characteristic lull in the mid- to late afternoon).
Most telling of all is that when individuals take steps to stabilise the level of sugar in the bloodstream, their unhealthy attachment to chocolate is usually severed without pain. The key to this is regular meals based around foods that give a slow and sustained release of energy into the system, including meat, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, fresh fruit, vegetables, oats and brown rice. Additional ballast for blood sugar can be provided by healthy snacks such as fresh fruit and/or nuts.
Getting blood-sugar levels on an even keel often makes conquering chocoholism a piece of cake.