Are You Addicted to Chocolate, Sugary and / or Fatty Foods? Help is Here.

Updated: May 5, 2020

With so many people joking that they’re ‘chocaholics’ or addicted to chocolate, lollies, and foods high in sugar could it be said our favourite sweet stuff could actually be a drug?

Behavioural psychologists have been looking into the impact of chocolate and foods high in sugar on the brain and have found there are reasons why moderation can sometimes seem like a minor miracle.

A very common craving

Chocolate is the most commonly craved food in women, and many people describe themselves as a ‘chocoholic’ as a way of explaining their overwhelming desire to consume chocolate.

While intense cravings might lead some people to think they are actually are addicted to the sweet, our preference for chocolate is really a legacy of our ancestors.

We evolved as a species that hunted and gathered foods. That process required a great amount of effort and wasn’t always successful. Therefore high-energy, fatty foods were given great preference in our diets, because our predecessors found that sometimes there was a long waiting time between substantial meals.

Our ancestors have passed this inherent preference down to us, which explains why humans love rich foods.

These days we don’t have to wait long until our next meal. Heading down the confectionary aisle requires little in the way of exertion – yet resisting the urge to demolish one can feel like a huge effort.

A pink jar with the label 'Take Your Power Back'

Can you really be addicted to chocolate and high sugar foods?

Yes absolutely. Specific evidence for chocolate addiction has not been shown yet, although research has been conducted to establish whether junk foods – those high in fat and refined sugars – are addictive.

Sugar addiction has been demonstrated, though, and chocolate (cocoa) contains many other rewarding chemicals that are active within the brain.

Like heroin, cocaine and amphetamines, chocolate stimulates the release of dopamine and serotonin, although to a much lesser extent.

The physiological impact of denying yourself chocolate is also different from these drugs. Repeated use of illicit drugs prompts changes in the brain’s reward system, so that when an addict stops taking the drug they go through withdrawal. Physical symptoms include cold sweats, disorientation and depression.

When most people discover there’s no chocolate in the house and the shops are shut, it’s highly unlikely they’ll experience pronounced withdrawal symptoms akin to those of heroin withdrawal.

That, however, does not mean that it is not addictive- nicotine is addictive, and the withdrawal to it and smoking are similar to how our body feels as it withdraws from high sugar foods or caffeine.

We suffer an array of physical and psychological symptoms - from mood swings, nausea, headaches, fatigue, agitation and body aches - As our body adapts to the physical aspect or withdrawal of these from your diet.

Then there is the psychological component of needing to replace this habit - or way of comforting, self-soothing etc with more positive behaviour. This requires both physical and emotional change and withdrawal/rehabilitation.

If it were not a dependence requiring a complete lifestyle rehabilitation - it would be simple, and would not involve continually facing relapse. as we see in weight loss and regain. Fatty high carbohydrate sugary foods are the drug of choice for some.

Psychologically we are not comfortable with being uncomfortable, so we use our drug of choice - food, to give you a momentary “high”. With a binge on a packet of Tim Tams, icecream, lollies, chocolate, potato chips - or whatever you can get your hands on.

This releases a surge of dopamine and serotonin in your brain giving you a high more intense than any cocaine hit. Only to leave you after feeling flatter than before, depleted of energy, increasingly depressed and with even greater self-loathing. Self-esteem plummets further and the whole cycle starts again.

person's feet in front of a rainbow on the ground

But it does feel like an addiction!

Women in particular frequently report having overwhelming desire for chocolate, particularly at ‘that time of the month’. Cravings are often triggered when we see images of chocolate and high sugar foods, so those Cadbury’s adverts during rom-coms on TV are there for a reason – to make us want those sugary treats.

Equally, if you’re feeling down, the negative emotion itself can trigger a craving because we associate chocolate with lifting our mood. Habits also play an important role in any sort of addiction. Having a chocolate biscuit with your afternoon coffee can make the experience more enjoyable, so you do it again, and it rapidly becomes part of your routine. You may not even be hungry or require that caffeine and chocolate boost, but it’s become part of your standard day so you have it anyway.

Why is chocolate specifically so pleasurable?

Eating chocolate is a unique sensory experience that very few other foods can match, thanks to its rich, sweet, smooth texture and distinct cocoa aroma. It’s illicit qualities also make it attractive. While people might be aware that chocolate’s high calorie and fat content put it in the treat category of your diet, the reality of chocolate being ‘naughty but nice’ makes it even more tempting.

If you find yourself turning to chocolate when you’re feeling down, science backs up its attraction. Chocolate creates an indulgent, comforting feeling that lifts our spirits when we’re down and bolsters our level of happiness when things are going well. Eating it causes the release of neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain that evoke feelings of pleasure.

These chemicals include endorphins, which are in fact a form of morphine made within the brain itself. They cause the ‘high’ experienced during vigorous exercise, love and orgasm, and are also released during a painful experience, because they act as an analgesic.

The neurotransmitter serotonin is another mood enhancer. Chocolate contains the substances tyramine and tryptophan, which are converted to serotonin in the brain. Increased serotonin causes feelings of wellbeing and this is how antidepressant medications such as Prozac relieve depression.

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