Why do we crave chocolate? Chocolate is the number one most craved food and womenare the ones most likely to crave it. And rightfully so. As I mention in my book, Food & Mood, many of our cravings for foods are triggered by a stew of appetite-control chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Low and behold, chocolate tickles just about every brain chemical there is. For example, the sugar in chocolate affects two neurotransmitters – serotonin and the endorphins. According to research from Johns Hopkins University, the very taste of sugar on the tongue – such as the sugar in chocolate – releases endorphins in the brain.

These brain chemicals produce a euphoric feeling, making the chocolate experience immediately pleasurable. The sugar in chocolate also might raise brain levels of serotonin a neurotransmitter that also boosts mood. It is no surprise that most people don’t start craving chocolate until mid-afternoon. That’s when a brain chemical called galanin is at its all-time high. Galanin turns on the desire for fatty foods. Women are most likely to turn to the sweet-and-creamy foods with chocolate being the number one choice followed by ice cream, cookies, cakes, pies, and other desserts. Men are more likely to go for the protein-fat foods like steak, gravies, hamburgers, or meatloaf. Then of course the cocoa butter in chocolate is what gives this “moment of ecstasy” that “melt in your mouth” texture that is irresistible.

Is there any link between chocolate and love?
When it comes to brain chemistry, there is one love connection, but it doesn’t hold water. Chocolate contains a compound called phenylethylamine or PEA. This compound is also found in relatively high amounts in the brain when we first fall in love. The theory is that perhaps people turn to chocolate to boost that giddy, warm-fuzzy feeling they lack in their lives. However, the amount of PEA in a candy bar is not enough to make you feel romantic. There is more PEA in a chunk of cheese or a hunk of salami and people don’t crave those foods like they do chocolate.

It sounds like chocolate acts something like a drug?
Well, chocolate does have caffeine in it, which also provides an energy boost that improves mood. A study from the Neuroscience Institute of San Diego reported that chocolate also contains a substance that mimics the effects of marijuana and that boosts the pleasure you get when you eat chocolate. Although the amounts in chocolate are probably too low to have a significant effect, this study does remind us that there’s a lot more to chocolate than just a heart-throb aroma and melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Can the smell of chocolate turn on a craving?
Possibly. Even the aroma of chocolate may affect brain chemistry. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that when chocolate cravers were given chocolate, white chocolate or capsules of cocoa powder, only eating the real chocolate curbed cravings, which implies that smelling chocolate may play a big part in the pleasurableness of the chocolate experience. In short, no one knows exactly why we love chocolate, but it’s likely that chocolate hits us on several, irresistible levels.

Won’t a chocolate craving go away if I just abstain?
Probably not. In fact, abstinence makes the heart grow fonder when it comes to chocolate. The more you try to refrain from chocolate, the greater is the craving and the likelihood of an all-out binge. Instead, if you plan a small chocolate treat into the daily or weekly menu, you are not as likely to feel deprived or to overindulge later on.

How can a person stick with a healthful eating plan and still eat chocolate?
By choosing low-fat chocolate alternatives. Or, by indulging in small amounts of high-quality chocolate. For example:

Low-Fat Chocolate Tips from Food & Mood:

1. Use cocoa powder, it only has 30 percent fat calories compared to 50 percent fat calories in whole-milk hot chocolate, 60 percent fat calories in some chocolates, and 76 percent fat calories in unsweetened chocolate. Use it in muffins, cookies, or blender drinks for a rich chocolate flavor with less fat.

2. Use chocolate-flavored syrups with 3 percent fat calories. Spoon it over nonfat vanilla yogurt, graham crackers, figs, dried apricots, or pretzels.

3. (This is my favorite one!) Portion out 1/4 cup of fat-free chocolate syrup and dunk 2 cups of cut up fresh fruit, such as orange slices, strawberries, kiwi, bananas, or grapefruit slices.

4. Extra-rich chocolate angel food cake can be made with one package of angel food cake mix prepared according to directions combined with 1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder for a dessert that is only 7 percent fat calories and less than 160 calories per serving.

Small, high-quality serving suggestions:

5. Eat chocolate with meals. At the end of a meal, you are less likely to overindulge and more likely to choose small portions.

6. Buy chocolate in small quantities. Avoid the five-pound box of chocolates, the oversized candy bar, or the half-gallon of ice cream. Instead, one or two Hershey Kisses, a Tootsie Roll, or a small candy bar may satisfy the craving without going overboard.

7. If the smell of chocolate is your downfall, try a little perfume or aftershave applied under your nose.

8. Make chocolate cheesecake with fat-free cream cheese.

9. Make sugar-free chocolate pudding with nonfat milk.

Is Chocolate bad for our health?
No, not when consumed in small doses. Granted, chocolate is a high-fat item (one ounce of milk chocolate has the fat equivalent of a tablespoon of salad dressing or butter). However, although the fat in chocolate is saturated, it is a type of saturated fat called stearic acid that actually doesn’t affect our risk for heart disease. However, just because it’s heart-safe, doesn’t give people license to binge. Chocolate is still high in calories and should be savored in small doses, not as a main course.