It’s almost Valentine’s Day and amongst the ubiquitous love notes and roses, there’s chocolate everywhere you look – it’s for sale in heart-shaped boxes in every store, it’s in cocktails, in coffee, in your morning bagel or muffin – how’s a person to avoid it? Surveys consistently show chocolate at the top of the food cravings list – along with other sweets, chips, and bread – so you’re not alone if you stash a few extra bags of M&M’s in February.
We asked neurologist Dr. Shaheen Lakhan, The Learning Corp’s Vice President of Research and Development, what makes us crave sugary foods like chocolate.
He explained that research shows that cravings indeed tend to form around “unhealthy” foods – those that contain lots of sugar, starch, fat or salt. The neurological mechanisms that create cravings — as well as the sorts of environmental factors that trigger them — are fairly universal.
An imbalance of hormones, such as leptin and serotonin, can cause cravings for certain foods. Emotions may also be involved in producing cravings, especially if you tend to eat for comfort. Scientists also think there is the possibility of a connection between the cravings and nutrients – in that our bodies crave certain foods because we lack certain nutrients.
Whatever the biological reason for the cravings, what sets them off is some kind of input from the senses — typically a sight or smell. And food companies have learned to cleverly take advantage of these triggers to point people toward commonly craved, sugary, starchy or salty foods. So we’re fighting an uphill battle!
What happens once we give in and eat that chocolate truffle? Dr. Lakhan explains that “there is a morsel of truth to the saying, “Chocolate is happiness that you can eat.” Studies have been done where people given chocolate (largely cocoa) have reported improvements in self-rated calmness, contentedness, and cognitive performance while mitigating “mental fatigue.” Other studies looking at rats showed elevated serotonin levels in the brain with long-term cocoa ingestion. In humans, cocoa can positively impact the brain by promoting new connections, improving blood flow and preventing cell death.”
It turns out that chocolate is very appealing in those prone to cognitive decline like individuals with or at risk of Alzheimer’s disease because the flavonols – antioxidants found in certain plants (like cocoa) stimulate new brain cell growth and prevent existing brain cell death.
There are also many studies associating chocolate intake with reduced risk of stroke since it stimulates blood flow in the brain. But note that it is mainly cocoa which exerts these benefits, so choose darker chocolate with at least 70% cocoa content to reap these cognitive rewards.
According to Dr. Lakhan, the word is still out on whether chocolate can help people with depression or anxiety manage some symptoms. “The studies are mixed on the effect”, he says, “and perhaps how much intake one has (dose) is a factor. It may be that low levels of chocolate intake in the short-term may improve anxiety, but higher levels are stimulating and anxiety-provoking. In the long-term, it may help with some of the symptoms of depression.”
In the end, Dr. Lakhan advises “moderation, moderation, moderation. You don’t want to create a coping system where when stressed, you habitually resort to eating chocolate. This reliance on a type of chemical coping could create a potential pathway to addiction or obesity.” But if your brain craves chocolate, an extra slice of chocolate cake in February isn’t going to cause much harm, so give in to those cravings and enjoy the sweet and gooey goodness.