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ASK THE NUTRITIONIST: Why do we crave chocolate?

In this week's column, Nonie De Long explains chocolate is a stimulant on multiple levels, impacting mood, cognitive function and energy levels
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Dear Readers, this week’s question comes from Taylor in Toronto. Taylor wrote to me asking if I can explain why she has such a hard time with chocolate cravings and if there are any healthy chocolate recipes I can share or healthy chocolates to purchase. She’s trying to lose weight but finds the draw to chocolate too much, especially late evening and in the afternoons at work. She also reaches for it when she’s emotional. Do I know of anything she can do to overcome this?

The reasons we reach for chocolate

The reason so many of us love and crave chocolate is probably biochemical. It’s a stimulant on a number of levels, simultaneously impacting mood, our brain’s reward system, cognitive function, and energy levels. It also contains nutrients, some of which abate cramps, giving it an added appeal to women with menstrual discomfort. Let’s take a closer look.

The chemicals in chocolate

Chocolate contains 380 chemicals, including caffeine and we love our caffeine! It’s the most widely consumed drug across the globe - if you don’t count sugar as a drug. 1oz of milk chocolate contains about 12mg of caffeine, while 1oz of dark chocolate contains about twice that. This isn’t nearly as much as an 8oz cup of coffee, which is about 95mg. However, how many of us stop at 1oz of chocolate? And how many eat it after dinner then expect to sleep? In children and those in menopause, as well as those with insomnia and anxiety disorders and those with cardiovascular disease and adrenal issues, this can be a bad idea. Why? These groups are particularly sensitive to caffeine and it may not only impact sleep negatively but also wind them up or cause worsening of the condition. And if you have a sluggish liver it can be difficult to clear caffeine from the body, making it harder to get a good sleep - even if you eat the chocolate at noon!

Caffeine is medicinal for other reasons, however. It’s a strong vasoconstrictor. What does this mean? It tightens the blood vessels all over the body and this can help a lot with throbbing pain. Are you one of those people who gets a raging headache if you miss your cup of joe? This is the reason why. If your body is used to having the chemicals in caffeine and the vasoconstriction and you’re prone to headaches - the removal of the substance that tightens the veins can cause a feedback loop that can trigger a throbbing headache. It’s better in such a case to reduce the size of the coffee over time or not miss it at all. Also have your blood pressure checked by a medical professional.

Caffeine is also medicinal for those with ADHD. Essentially, it works like the stimulant medications do, but on a much smaller level. In those who are medication naive it can help manage the distractibility symptoms. Those with ADHD instinctively know this and are often caffeine junkies in an attempt to self medicate - even if it’s unconscious. In children with ADHD

caffeine can bypass the need for medications altogether but you should work with a licensed professional to help guide such a trial.

If that wasn’t enough, caffeine has antidepressant properties. It is known to elevate mood, lower risk of depression, and even lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. This is on top of the almost euphoric high it can give in high enough doses.

Sugar is another stimulating component of chocolate. It gives us a quick burst of energy, triggering dopamine centres in the brain, which makes us feel pleasure and contributes to addiction. It’s the pleasure reward centre of the brain. This energy is often followed by a blood sugar crash, especially as we become insulin resistant over time with too much exposure to sugar, so it’s best to limit this aspect of chocolate. In order to enjoy chocolate without the sugar, which is the most harmful part, you can reach for chocolates sweetened with xylitol, erythritol, stevia, and monk fruit. These are all superior to sugar or artificial sweeteners. Watch out for chocolate sweetened with malito!. You do not want to eat copious amounts of that, as it causes intense gastrointestinal distress for a lot of people. To know how much of your craving for chocolate is related to the sugar in it you can switch to sugar-free and see if you still crave it.

Chocolate also contains the essential amino acid phenylalanine, which can have a stimulating impact on mood and is known to have pain-fighting effects on the body. Essentially, it works with other essential amino acids to inhibit the degradation of chemicals that act like endorphins, suppressing pain signals in the body. For more on this, go here. Given this, it makes sense that people in emotional or physical discomfort crave this sweet treat. Phenylalanine can also increase noradrenaline, which is a neurotransmitter much like adrenaline that can help us feel more alert and energetic for a short time.

Additionally, chocolate contains theobromine - a chemical metabolite of caffeine. It occurs as the body breaks caffeine down and has a milder impact. It gives chocolate the slightly bitter taste and is also a stimulant that increases our mental alertness. Unlike caffeine, however, it’s a vasodilator. It opens the blood vessels up. In large enough doses, or those who are sensitive, this is part of the reason why chocolate can trigger headaches. It’s also why theobromine stimulants are used as pre-workout supplements - for improved blood flow. It also stimulates the release of Nitric oxide, which is a compound found to protect against cardiovascular disease and promote healthy blood pressure possibly more than any other except full spectrum sunlight and niacin. But those we will discuss another day.

Theobromine is being researched for benefits on cognitive function, as a potent antioxidant, as an anti-inflammatory, as an analgesic (pain reliever), and for its impact on the cardiovascular system. For more info on this, go here. This is in part why so many gurus recommend dark chocolate in small doses. It contains a significant amount of theobromine.

Remember, however, although the stimulant effect is milder than caffeine, theobromine can inhibit sleep even hours after consumption in sensitive people.

Chocolate also contains the essential amino acid tryptophan - the sleep neurotransmitter that is a precursor to niacin and serotonin synthesis in the body. We also get this amino acid abundantly from turkey. It makes us feel calm, elevates our mood, and can help us feel happy. Additionally, niacin is essential for many chemical processes in the body, some of which are very important in heart health. In order for tryptophan to be converted to niacin, however, we need ample B6, iron, and B2. Many many people I see clinically are deficient in these - especially those with low stomach acid (often from gastric bypass or prolonged PPIs) and those who don’t consume red meat. Niacin and serotonin can’t be converted in these people and I notice they often develop very strong cravings for chocolate - perhaps in a subconscious effort to self medicate. Perhaps we crave what we need the most. Additionally, some individuals may be more sensitive to the impacts of serotonin on mood.

The nutrients in chocolate

The nutrients found in chocolate vary according to the product. Dark chocolate is higher in nutrients, containing more cocoa per mass (50-90% cocoa solids), while milk chocolate contains other ingredients like cocoa butter, milk, and sweeteners. Thus, milk chocolate contains less of the nutrients of cocoa, which is a superfood. Cocoa is a source of iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, phosphorus, and flavanols. What are flavanols? They are plant nutrients that are known to have an abundance of health benefits from protecting the cardiovascular system to increasing insulin sensitivity and reducing inflammation.

The minerals in chocolate are noteworthy because we are often deficient in these today. This is especially true of zinc and magnesium and again, especially true of those with processed food diets. Minerals are difficult to get from commercially grown plant foods, and as such cooked bones and deep spring water are the best sources. It’s interesting to note that magnesium helps with relaxing muscles and fighting cramps and women who are experiencing menstrual cycles will often have very strong cravings for chocolate. Again, I suspect it’s a form of unconscious self medication.

There are many reasons a person would reach for chocolate, chemically speaking. If one of these applies to you, I encourage you to explore it more. Determine if you’re possibly deficient in any nutrient it contains or if it serves a chemical purpose in your life. And try to reach for the healthy chocolates sweetened with natural, low glycemic sweeteners like those listed above.

Thank you Taylor, for writing in. As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them! Just send me an email at nonienutritionista@gmail.com. And if you’re looking for more specific health information check out my website at hopenotdope.ca.

Namaste!

Nonie Nutritionista



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