Oh, sugar! Did I just single-handedly finish that 12 pack of creme eggs for lunch?
Perhaps you were disciplined enough to give chocolate up for lent, or maybe you ate all your Easter eggs in one day. Either way, it begs the question, is chocolate really addictive? Can we really become hooked on certain foods?
How do we define food addiction?
Until recently, there was no recognised psychometric to identify food addictions. Scales existed for binge eating, emotional overeating, eating disorders and alcohol consumption, but none to explore the behavioural indicators of food addiction.
In 2009, researchers from Yale University developed the Yale Food Addiction Scale to fill this gap, updated to version 2.0 in 2016. This is a set of 35 questions on eating behaviour derived from criteria for substance use disorders, drawing parallels between drug addiction and food addiction. Each question is scored, from ‘never’ to different frequencies within a month, week or daily.
The scale shows how eating habits may fall within the boundaries of substance abuse:
Source: Yale University
With a diagnostic tool for food addiction settled, what actually happens in the brain when we crave another bar of chocolate; when we snap another chunk off and let it melt in our mouths?
The biological basis of chocolate addiction
The simplest explanation for chocolate addiction is its activation of dopamine and opioid systems in the body, providing a sense of reward. A study assessed the psychological response of subjects to chocolate using drug-effect questions, normally used to judge well-being, euphoria, and other sensations after taking drugs like morphine.
They found that chocolate consumption caused an increase in drug-like ‘psychoactive’ effects. Psychoactive substances change brain function and alter mental processing. The effects were proportional to the chocolate’s sugar and cocoa content and associated with a desire to consume more.
In another study, MRI scans of brain activity in young female subjects showed that those who scored higher on the Yale Food Addiction Scale had higher activation in brain regions regulating rewards and cravings when anticipating a chocolate milkshake.
These females also displayed lower activity in inhibitory brain regions while consuming the milkshake. This suggests that these individuals had less inhibitory control or a reduced feeling of fullness while eating palatable foods. These responses are strikingly similar to brain scans of drug users when presented with their substance of abuse.
Chocoholic or social animal?
Despite the evidence of the psychoactive effects of certain foods, many researchers remain reluctant to recognise ‘food addiction’ per se as it implies substance-based dependence, where specific nutrients evoke addiction.
Chocolate, for example, does have pharmacologically active substances like caffeine, theobromine and phenylethylamine. However, studies have shown that consumption of white chocolate, which does not contain cocoa and therefore lacks the above substances, provides a similar craving relief. This suggests that our love for chocolate is less due to its pharmacological constituents and more to do with the combined sensory experience of aroma and texture from fat and sweetness from sugar.
Rogers and Smit offer an intriguing alternative perspective, citing the psychosocial factors behind why we might be self-proclaimed chocoholics. They argue that chocolate is labelled ‘nice but naughty’ by society, a sugary, fatty but extremely tasty snack which ought to be eaten with restraint. Attempts to restrict desires for chocolate only exacerbate them, so we become more conscious of our consumption, accompanied by feelings of guilt and a lack of self-control.
In a study comparing the attributes of 50 food items compared to their frequency of consumption, chocolate scored highest in ‘difficult to resist’ but was ranked 17th in consumption. In contrast, tea and coffee ranked 18th and 25th respectively for the difficulty to resist, but were the most frequently consumed. This is because tea and coffee are more socially acceptable sources of pharmacological stimulation, whereas the hedonistic effect of eating chocolate, an unhealthy treat, is negatively perceived as overindulgence.
In essence, Rogers and Smit claim that chocolate is most frequently pointed towards as an addictive substance because it is the one food most people try to resist; there is not enough evidence to demonstrate it has the same potent neuroadaptive effects as drug addictions.
The next time you find yourself proclaiming chocoholic status, ask yourself this: am I really addicted to chocolate, in the sense of cravings, tolerance, withdrawal, inhibited control, and impaired lifestyle, or am I simply responding to environmental or emotional cues, desiring the pleasure of some good old chocolate?