Reasons for chocolate cravings

Food cravings are common. The tendency to crave foods high in sugar and fat is well-established in nutritional research. As a food high in both sugar and fat, chocolate is one of the most commonly craved foods in America.

Here are five reasons you might be craving chocolate and what you can do:

Chocolates are made by combining cocoa powder and cocoa butter with sweeteners and other ingredients. Cocoa butter accounts for most of the fat in chocolate. Different types of chocolate have varying concentrations of cocoa powder (often called the cacao percentage). Dark chocolate has the highest concentration of cocoa powder and white chocolate the lowest. Chocolate also contains a variety of other ingredients like sugars, milk powders, and nuts.

Cocoa is naturally bitter. To improve the taste of chocolate, processors add plenty of sugar. Sugar is a type of carbohydrate that your body absorbs quickly. Some people believe that this quick “sugar high” provides a temporary elevation in mood. Most research, however, suggests that it’s the combination of fat and sugar that make certain foods so addictive.

A plain Hershey’s milk chocolate bar has 24 grams of sugar. Other chocolate bars that contain caramel, nougat, and marshmallow may have even more sugar. For example, a Snickers bar has 27 grams of sugar. Chocolate bars containing more than 75 percent cacao tend to have less sugar (under 10 grams per bar).

Research suggests that sugars (and other refined carbohydrates) are a key component of processed foods that are considered addictive.

What to do about it

According to the American Heart Association, women should limit themselves to 25 grams of sugar per day (about six teaspoons) and men should stay below 36 grams (nine teaspoons). You may be able to reduce your sugar intake by eating chocolate with a high cacao percentage. If you’re concerned about the sugar content, you can also try this simple three-step plan to curb your sugar cravings.

Sometimes chocolate cravings can be easily explained: You’re just hungry. When your body is hungry, it craves fast carbohydrates like refined sugars. Unfortunately, most processed chocolate is high on the glycemic index, which means that it gives you a quick, but temporary sugar rush. Once that rush passes, you’ll likely be hungry again.

What to do about it

You can beat your chocolate craving by filling up on something else. Once you aren’t hungry anymore, the intrusive thoughts about chocolate should subside. Look for foods that are low in sugar and high in protein or whole grains. These foods will keep you full longer and prevent a sugar crash.

While chocolate does contain some caffeine, it’s typically not very much. As cacao is processed, its caffeine content decreases. Most processed chocolate candy bars have under 10 mg of caffeine. To put that in perspective: The average cup of coffee has about 85 to 200 mg of caffeine.

Some dark chocolates, however, can contain more caffeine than a can of cola (which has around 30 mg). The higher the cacao content, the higher the caffeine content.

Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, making you feel more awake and alert. It also affects the levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain, including dopamine. This may contribute to its addictive nature. For people who never drink caffeinated beverages, the caffeine in chocolate may be enough to provide an energy boost. If you regularly consume caffeine, however, your tolerance to its effects is probably fairly high.

What to do about it

Try a cup of black tea for a caffeine boost rich in powerful antioxidants.

Read here for a comparison of caffeine counts in hot chocolate versus tea, soda, and coffee.

About 50 percent of American women crave chocolate around the time their period starts. Researchers have been unable to find a biological explanation for this phenomenon. Among women born outside of the United States, in countries where chocolate isn’t habitually associated with PMS, chocolate cravings are far more unusual.

Basically, women may crave chocolate during their periods out of habit because they believe chocolate cravings are normal.

In addition, when you’re stressed, anxious, depressed, or uncomfortable, it’s easy to turn toward something that you know will make you feel good.

What to do about it

Practicing mindful eating will help you identify habitual cravings. Ask yourself why you want chocolate. Is it because you’re hungry? If not, you can find an alternative or simply eat it in moderation.

Mindfulness meditation and other stress relievers can also help you deal with stress in a healthier way.

Research shows that chocolate is high in magnesium. Scientists have questioned whether magnesium deficiencies could explain people’s chocolate cravings. This seems unlikely given that there are other foods much higher in magnesium that people rarely crave, including nuts.

What to do about it

Magnesium supplements are available at your local pharmacy. You can also try eating foods high in magnesium, such as raw almonds, black beans, or whole grains.

The healthiest way to get your chocolate fix is to find a chocolate with a high cacao percentage. Chocolates with a high cacao percentage have more antioxidants and less sugar than other chocolates.

Look for chocolate that is ethically sourced through fair trade practices that protect the workers who produce it. Nearly 60 percent of the world’s cacao is currently grown in West African nations that tend to rely on child labor. Research funded by the U.S. Department of Labor found over 1.75 million children worked on cacao farms in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana between 2008 and 2009.

Consumer guides and organizations like Ethical Consumer, from the United Kingdom, provide tools for people to learn more about the products they want. Ethical Consumer’s chocolate scorecard can help you find chocolates and chocolate companies that align with your values as a shopper.

The health benefits of chocolate come from the natural cocoa powder. Chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cacao may:

Trying to resist those chocolate cravings? Chocolate does have health benefits, but the high sugar and fat content can be detrimental for many people. Here are a few tips for cutting chocolate out of your life.

  • Stay hydrated by drinking at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day.
  • Fill up on healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, and avocados.
  • Eat a well-balanced diet that incorporates lots of lean protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
  • Eat organic nut butters with no added sugar.
  • Satisfy your sweet tooth with organic fruits, low-fat yogurts, and fruit smoothies.
  • Think outside the box when baking. Discover recipes that rely on whole grains instead of sugars to avoid a sugar crash.

Chocolate cravings are very common, but there are healthy ways to deal with them. Dark chocolate with high percentages of cacao have a number of health benefits, which means you should feel free to enjoy them (in limited quantities of course). Keep in mind that anything with sugar and fat can contribute to weight gain, so practice smart portion control.