Can you become addicted to chocolate? • 06.03.13
You’ve probably heard the term “chocoholic” before. Maybe you’ve even used it to describe your devotion to what the Mayans and Aztecs believed was a food of the gods. Usually said jokingly, “chocoholic” actually nods to a potentially serious question: can a person become addicted to chocolate, or food in general? It’s an appropriate question to ask on Valentine’s Day, the feast day of chocolate.
There are three essential components of addiction:
- intense craving
- loss of control over the object of that craving
- continued use or engagement despite bad consequences.
Several studies have shown that people can exhibit all three of these in their relationships with food.
Take craving, for example. The midnight run for a pint of ice cream is a familiar scenario. But I’ve never heard of anyone trolling for celery at that hour. That’s likely because foods that deliver a lot of sugar and fat — like chocolate — trigger reward pathways in the brain. In some animal studies, restricting these foods induced a stress-like response consistent with the “withdrawal” response seen in addiction.
Chocolate, which contains both sugar and fat, is often used in studies of food addiction. In a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, researchers at Yale University asked volunteers to fill out questionnaires to assess addictive behavior. The volunteers then had their brains imaged 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 control impulses to seek rewards. A similar pattern of brain activity is found in people addicted to drugs.
In another study, this one involving 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 reactions caused by some drugs. (more…)