Do you suddenly lose all self-control around chocolate? Is the lure of Rocky Road ice cream or a gooey chocolate chip cookie just too much after a hard day or a piece of disappointing news? Well, calling all chocoholics: we're taking a deep dive into the science of chocolate cravings.
Chocolate is one of the most-craved foods in the US, especially for women. Nearly half of American women crave chocolate regularly during their menstrual cycle, and 90% of American women report at least occasional chocolate cravings. Both men and women also crave chocolate when they’re emotionally upset, and chocolate craving is associated with depressive symptoms.
So why is chocolate in particular so irresistible? As it turns out, it's probably not the chocolate; it's us.
Not guilty: nutrient deficiencies, psychoactive compounds, and menstrual hormones
It’s not a nutrient deficiency.
One common explanation for chocolate craving is that it’s caused an iron or magnesium deficiency. But evidence suggests that this probably isn’t the case. There’s not actually much evidence that people crave foods high in micronutrients they need. And even if it did work like that, chocolate wouldn’t be on the list. Ounce for ounce, both cashews and almonds are higher in magnesium than dark chocolate - if magnesium deficiency causes chocolate cravings, why don’t people also get uncontrollable cravings for those foods? The logic doesn’t check out.
It’s not psychoactive compounds.
Another non-starter is the “chocolate is psychoactive” rationale. Chocolate does contain some types of psychoactive substances, like phenylethylamine, but in very tiny amounts. Research indicates that eating a realistic amount of chocolate wouldn’t create any significant psychoactive effect. Even in people who binge eat, it’s just not going to happen. As this review explains:
“there is little support for the suggestion that experiences arising from eating chocolate, including its effects on mood, are related to the activity of psychoactive minor constituents.”
It’s not menstrual hormones.
Despite the association with menstruation, research also suggests that chocolate cravings probably aren’t caused by hormone fluctuations. Monthly hormonal changes can cause changes in appetite overall, but there’s no real evidence that this affects desire for chocolate specifically. Also, menstrual chocolate craving is specific to the US. American women don’t have anything biologically special about their menstrual cycles, but the Americans are the only ones who commonly have severe chocolate cravings around their periods. In fact, researchers have even measured this over time: immigrants to the US don’t initially have menstrual chocolate cravings, but as they become more acculturated to the US, they report higher rates of chocolate craving around their periods. That's not because there's something in the water; it's because they’re picking it up from the culture around them.
It's all in our collective heads - which doesn’t make it easy!
So why do people crave chocolate? Let’s take a step back: why do people like chocolate? (Liking = finding a food tasty; craving = intense desire to go out and get some. You can like a food without craving it. For example, lots of people like sweet potatoes but almost nobody craves them).
It’s easy to see why people like chocolate. It’s high in both sugar and fat, which makes it extremely delicious to most humans. Add some salt (sea salt truffles) and a bit of crunch (chocolate-covered pretzels or potato chips), and you’ve got a great recipe for totally addictive goodness.
So why do we not just like chocolate, but also crave it? Some researchers suggest that the answer is the tug of war between liking and resisting. Most people, especially women, feel guilty about wanting chocolate, because we’re all so conditioned to be neurotically anxious about calories and weight. We’re drawn to chocolate, but have to constantly resist it, so it becomes very emotionally salient. This could be true of a lot of fatty-sweet foods, but in the US, chocolate is culturally set up as a prototypical indulgence food for women, so chocolate becomes a focus point for the “I want it but I shouldn’t” mental tug of war.
That could explain the cultural differences (different cultures set up different foods as guilty pleasure indulgence treats), and it explains why so chocolate cravings are particularly common in women, who tend to be more relentlessly barraged with food anxiety and body shaming. And it easily fits with the menstruation association: menstruation gives women a socially-acceptable excuse to indulge in the thing they want anyway - and it’s a reason they can give themselves without feeling bad about it (“I’m not weak or lazy, just on my period!”).
There’s also a significant relationship between chocolate craving and eating disordered behaviors specifically in North American women - not men, not women in China or Italy or South Africa, just women in the US and Canada.
All of this research suggests that our various psychological food issues (and boy, do we collectively have a lot of those) explain chocolate craving much more than any actual physical component of the chocolate.
So, what’s a chocolate craver to do?
Cold Turkey vs. Moderation
When they quit chocolate cold turkey, some people feel fine; other people get mega-cravings.
This study tested chocolate deprivation without calorie restriction. (so that they wouldn’t confuse hunger and chocolate cravings). Subjects could eat as many calories and as much fat/sugar/salt as they wanted for 2 weeks - just no chocolate. The researchers separated subjects into high and low trait chocolate cravers (in other words, people who tend to crave chocolate a lot generally and people who don’t). They found that only high trait cravers wanted chocolate more when they were chocolate-deprived. Low cravers didn’t suddenly start craving chocolate when they couldn’t eat it. In general, most people generally stop craving what they don't eat, but this may or may not apply to you and chocolate specifically.
Depending on your psychological makeup (and also whether you’re a moderator or an abstainer) you might have good luck with the cold turkey strategy - or you might have a better time with more Paleo-friendly chocolate options that cut out the sugar and processed junk in most candy bars. Cocoa butter, the fat in chocolate, is actually great from a Paleo standpoint. And cocoa powder is also pretty good for you - it’s got some antioxidants, some essential minerals, and a few miscellaneous nutrients. Some tasty Paleo-friendly options include chocolate hazelnut balls, chocolate-covered almonds, coconut milk hot chocolate, or chocolate strawberry hearts. For a keto chocolate treat try these fat bombs.
Kick food guilt to the curb
Whether you quit completely or go with the moderation approach, the research on chocolate cravings definitely suggests endless food guilt is psychologically toxic. It's actually fine and even good for you to eat delicious high-fat foods, and there’s no reason to feel guilty about it.
Yes, there will always be people and TV shows and magazines trying to make you feel neurotic and guilty about food. That’s how the whole multi-billion dollar diet industry functions. But you can also resist that - refuse to buy the magazines, refuse to participate in diet-talk, and spend time with people who have more interesting things to discuss than calories. If you make a conscious effort to disengage from the social rituals of food guilt, you might be surprised by the feelings that follow.
General tips for cravings
These don’t have any research supporting them for chocolate particularly, but here are 5 tips for designing your diet to prevent cravings and 8 more tips for managing a craving in the moment.