Chocolate is one of those clichés we often see in movies as the go-to food for heartbroken women, but how much truth is behind this response? A lot more than one might think.

Chocolate is a psychoactive/psychotropic food containing more than 500 natural chemical compounds, many of which are categorised as mood and pleasure increasing. A psychoactive compound is one that crosses the blood-brain barrier and acts on the central nervous system where it affects brain function. There are a variety of chemical substances in chocolate. Essentially, the ingestion of chocolate replicates good feelings that can imitate those of happiness and even falling in love. Interestingly, over 52% of women in the UK stated that they preferred chocolate over sex.

Phenylethylamine:

This chemical is released by the brain when falling in love, and is probably the biggest contributor to chocolate making us feel good. It releases dopamine (the happy chemical) and endorphins into our pleasure centres and peaks during orgasm. It helps mediate feelings of attraction, excitement and euphoria.

Tryptophan:

This is an essential amino acid that enhances serotonin function which helps diminish anxiety.

Endorphin:

A lot of people should be familiar with this chemical – it makes you feel good and warm. Endorphins reduce sensitivity to pain and are the body’s endogenous opiates.

Anandamide:

This chemical is an endogenous cannabinoid found in the brain. This can have a small effect of promoting a feeling of well-being. The presence of N-oleolethanolamine and N-linoleoylethanolamine also inhibit the metabolism of anandamide, prolonging the feeling.

Theobromine and caffeine:

We all know the effects of caffeine – it stimulates the central nervous system, increases blood flow to the brain, and increases serotonin production. All that basically amounts to increased alertness. It’s worth noting that there is only a very small amount of caffeine in chocolate though – much less than what you’d get from other sources (coffee, etc.).

Theobromine is a chemical cousin to caffeine and is found in greater concentrations in darker chocolate. Theobromine has similar effects to caffeine, to a much smaller degree, but is also a cardiac stimulant. It has been shown to reduce coughing and is also thought to pay a role in regulating moods.

Aggregate effect:

Binge eating chocolate can be explained by the above effects. Psychologically, people attribute a cause and effect relationship between chocolate and feelings of anguish, in which chocolate appears to make the consumer feel better. This is not a placebo effect (as demonstrated by the chemicals above), and thus makes the subconscious association stronger – resulting in cravings when things are going bad. However, it’s common knowledge that binge eating chocolate will lead to obesity, causing self-esteem and image problems, as well as inhibited production of certain chemicals such as dopamine, and basically ending up in feeling worse for a lot longer, so let’s take a look at the health issues of chocolate.

Health:

Surprisingly, chocolate is good for your health. The distinction we have to make here is the type of chocolate you’re eating. Dark chocolate is good for you. It can lower blood pressure and improve blood circulation, preventing the formation of blood clots and arteriosclerosis. We also know from above that chocolate contains phenylethylamine, releasing endorphins and dopamine. It also helps control blood sugar by reducing insulin resistance and is full of antioxidants, as well as vitamins and minerals (potassium, copper, magnesium and iron).

Modern day chocolate dates back to the addition of triglyceride cocoa butter by Swiss confectioner Rodolphe Lindt in 1879. Since then, chocolate has been made sweeter and sweeter so that the concentration of cocoa is more and more diluted. It’s this chocolate that’s bad for you – the one that’s basically just sugar and cream. White chocolate, specifically, has no cocoa solids in it at all. Milk chocolate (obviously) has milk (or condensed milk) in it and a lower cocoa percentage.

Given the health benefits, I would advise adding darker chocolates to your diet in moderate amounts. Personally, around 60% cocoa and I can still enjoy the sweetness of chocolate. Any higher and it’s too bitter for me. I’ve stayed away from white chocolate for a long time now but I eat a lot of dark and milk chocolate, even during cutting when I’m trying to lose weight. I haven’t personally found any fat gain problems with eating a whole block after training, but obviously, chocolate is a calorie rich food so if you’re not active, you should eat less but not avoid it completely.

Etymology of cocoa:

While I’m on the topic, I’d like to point out that although I’ve used the word “cocoa”, it’s believed that this English word was a result of English traders misspelling the original word “cacao”, taken from the Olmec civilisation.

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