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Chocoholics: A True Addiction or a Funny Word?

Chocolate sure is sweet, but addiction isn’t. Are claims of dependence on chocolate legitimate?

In the third novel of the Harry Potter series, the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry encounters the “Dementors” for the first time -- creatures that feed on hope and happiness. When he is left with a feeling of depression, Harry learns that chocolate is an antidote to help counter the Dementors’ effects. For us Muggles, chocolate has a somewhat similar result, making us feel a little warm and fuzzy inside! But can we get addicted to chocolate? In other words, is being a chocoholic a real thing?

It's no secret that chocolate has a lot of sugar and fat. These ingredients are what make it so hard to put the snack down. Sugar stimulates the production of serotonin, a chemical messenger that boosts mood and is linked with happiness. There is something else as well. The sugar in chocolate is detected by our sweet taste receptors, which triggers the release of dopamine, the body’s so-called “pleasure chemical.” We want more of that pleasure and more of whatever can produce it.

However, the body tries to limit fluctuations in dopamine with the result that the more you indulge, the less dopamine gets released from the brain. To make up for this loss, chocolate fans may tend to increase portions and it might appear as if they are addicted.

The main compound of cocoa is the alkaloid (meaning organic molecule with nitrogen) theobromine. Long story short -- it is non-addictive. Of course, cocoa isn’t just made of theobromine, there are many other compounds present as well, including caffeine. Caffeine can cause dependence, just look at coffee drinkers. But there is a very small amount in cocoa; milk chocolate is highly unlikely to give the caffeinated effect, and white chocolate has no caffeine at all.

Researchers at Yale University found that “chocolate addicts” had similar brain activity as drug users when consuming the rich treat. Another 2012 study found that the enkephalin levels in rats increased as they ate M&M chocolates. Enkephalin is a peptide (a chain of amino acids, shorter than a protein) that binds to opioid receptors, but it doesn’t have the same effect on the body as opiates.

The type of addiction to any sweet or fatty foods, including chocolate, is usually the result of your brain simply activating its reward system. Serious drugs can permanently alter your neurons and brain chemistry after repeated use, chocolate won’t do that. It’s not the kind of your-body-relies-on-it addiction, which is much more harmful. There are no withdrawal symptoms if chocolate is taken away from a “chocoholic.” (Though they may not be happy.)

Overindulging in chocolate may have an effect on your waist and maybe on your teeth, but other than that, it is one of life’s simple pleasures. As Oscar Wilde is reputed to have once said, “everything in moderation, including moderation.”

Addiction is a strong word and “-oholic,” though lighthearted, is a misleading term. So, I propose we change the word. I’m not a Chocoholic, I’m a Chococraver? Chocofanatic? I’ll find the perfect title eventually.


Haleh Cohn just finished her first year at McGill University and is interested in the health sciences.

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