Sweet Obsession

Our Love Affair with Chocolate

Every second, Americans collectively eat 100 pounds of chocolate. It accounts for more than $20 billion in U.S. sales each year and is the number gift given to lovers on Valentine’s Day.

It’s no coincidence that eating chocolate is completely and utterly enjoyable. The smell of chocolate increases theta brain waves, which triggers relaxation. The delightful “snap” of a piece breaking off in your mouth is titillating. And then there is the ultimate satisfaction as it melts flooding your mouth with happiness.

So, why do we love chocolate so much?

According to Psychology Today, chocolate contains theobromine which increases heart rate and brings about feelings of arousal, caffeine which can make us feel awake and increase our ability to work and focus, and fat and sugar which are our preferred food sources because they are calorie dense.

It kind of sounds like a drug, doesn’t it? There is definitely a chemical component in the way chocolate affects our bodies. Chocolate increases serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter responsible for better mood, sleep, and reduction of anxiety. It was originally thought chocolate contained compounds that could activate our dopamine system (the feel good area of our brain) like cigarettes and cocaine, but this theory was disputed years ago.

However, the one fact that holds up over time is the emotional connection between chocolate and cravings. If you eat chocolate and enjoy it—especially if you have received it as a treat, reward, or for the holidays—then every time you eat it you strengthen your dopamine response, and the behavioral pattern necessary to get that feeling back again.

Something so decadent has to be bad for you, right? The good news is cocoa and dark chocolate have a wide variety of powerful antioxidants, much more than most other foods. The cocoa bean is rich in a class of plant nutrients called flavonoids, which help protect plants from environmental toxins and help repair damage. They can be found in a variety of foods, such as fruits and vegetables. When we eat foods rich in flavonoids, it appears that we also benefit from this “antioxidant” power.

Dark chocolate may improve blood flow and lower blood pressure (a little bit). If you have slightly elevated blood pressure, a bite of dark chocolate a day can improve blood flow and bring blood pressure levels down, according to research from the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Polyphenols in cocoa powder and dark chocolate can favorably—though modestly—reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by lowering bad cholesterol (LDL) and raising the antioxidant capacity of good cholesterol (HDL), according to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Of course, all these delicious statistics are based on consuming high-quality dark chocolate with a high cocoa count. Milk chocolate, grandma’s chocolate cake, and mocha toffee lattes do not qualify. Neither does white chocolate, which isn’t technically chocolate, as it contains no cocoa solids or cocoa liquor. Sorry, no health benefits for Cookies & Cream candy bars.

So, don’t worry about your weight when your sweetheart lovingly gives you a beautiful red heart-shaped box filled with tempting, tasty chocolate. It’s good for you!