We eat chocolate to celebrate good times, as a sweet treat to lift our spirits and to enjoy the pure taste.
But there’s another more negative emotion that pushes us toward Dairy Milk: stress.
Chocolate may be the first thing we crave when it’s hot, and doctors say it has to do with our fight or flight system — our body’s ancient response to danger.
Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone, and once it kicks in, it diverts energy away from the immune system, triggering that telltale sugar craving.
“The chocolate craving is a response to a stressful situation like a need for energy,” says Dr Nicky Keay, sports and dance endocrinologist and honorary clinical lecturer in medicine at University College London.
Chocolate may be the first thing we crave when the heat comes on, and doctors say it has to do with our fight or flight system — our body’s ancient response to danger
“Being stressed increases the hormone cortisol which uses up our energy stores, so we feel like we need something sweet to boost energy levels.”
But, paradoxically, simply eating sugary treats — like chocolate — can also spike blood sugar followed by a crash, which can set off a roller coaster of stress and craving.
Food and Mood: Is Your Sugar Level Making You Depressed?
Most people are familiar with how certain foods can boost mood or evoke other emotions, from a sense of calmness to jitters.
And this is not just in your imagination. “The link between blood glucose levels and mental health is well established,” says registered nutritionist and Healthspan consultant Rob Hobson.
“The brain relies on glucose for energy, which means low blood sugar can lead to poor brain function.” This can affect our cognitive abilities such as memory and recollection, as well as make us tired and irritable.
“Elevation in blood glucose levels can also cause problems, especially for people with diabetes, who can experience symptoms such as anxiety, depression and cognitive impairment.”
More worryingly, high blood glucose levels are also implicated in the development of depression.
“A study of adults with type 2 diabetes published in Diabetes Care found that higher blood glucose levels were associated with an increased risk of depressive symptoms,” says Hobson.
“The results of this study suggest that poor blood glucose control may contribute to the onset of depression.”
There is also a wealth of research showing how blood sugar levels can affect mood and cognitive function.
A study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research looked at the relationship between blood glucose and anxiety in healthy adults and found that people with higher blood glucose levels were more anxious than those with normal levels.
“According to other research, this relationship could be guiding as both blood glucose and mental health influence each other, so people with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety are more likely to have elevated blood glucose levels, but higher blood glucose levels may also contribute to developing mental health problems.” .’
Hobson says one possible explanation for this is that fluctuating blood glucose affects neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine, which are critical in regulating mood and cognition.
Another theory is that chronically high blood sugar — known as hyperglycemia — may cause inflammation linked to depression and other mental disorders.
“The processes involved in inflammation can also affect serotonin production and function in the brain,” he says.
“When blood sugar gets too low, it activates the body’s “fight-or-flight” stress response to help raise blood sugar (glucose) and fatty acids in your circulation as essential muscle and brain fuel,” says medical nutritionist Dr. Sarah Brewer.
“This stress response triggers hunger, so you’ll also eat to replenish your fuel levels, and you may get cravings — especially for sweet, hearty, carb-laden foods to raise blood sugar quickly.”
“Rising blood glucose levels then trigger the production of insulin, which can cause glucose levels to fall back below normal, creating a vicious cycle.”
But she notes that cortisol doesn’t just rise in moments of compulsion. “Levels of cortisol are highest in the morning because of the physical “stress” of your overnight fast.”
So why is chocolate the only thing that hits the spot?
“Interestingly, chocolate has effects on the brain to help you relax and feel good by increasing brain levels of several chemicals, including mood-altering PEA (phenylethylamine, related to amphetamine) that gives you a mild, confidence-inspiring buzz.
“Chocolate also contains tryptophan—a chemical that converts to serotonin in the brain to lift mood and increase euphoria—plus theobromine, a stimulant that lifts your spirits.
“And chocolate is pretty much unique in that it melts in the mouth at body temperature, providing a silky, luscious feeling that adds to its appeal and is, according to psychologists, one of the main reasons why chocolate is so addictive.”
She advises anyone craving chocolate to choose an antioxidant-rich variety with at least 70 percent cocoa solids instead of milk or white chocolate.
Stress isn’t the only feeling that can trigger a chocolate craving.
‘Do you crave chocolate or sweets when you’re angry? This phenomenon is called ‘hangry’ (hungry and angry),’ says Dr. Brewer.
“However, scientists discovered that there is more to it than just feeling irritable because you are stressed by hunger. It is thought that experiencing hunger aggression is a survival mechanism that would have helped our ancestors survive when they had to hunt for food.
“When you’re hungry, the brain is starved of glucose and this affects your ability to exercise self-control, meaning you’re more likely to display bad-tempered behavior or aggression.”
Plus, when glucose levels are low, the brain releases stress hormones, which contribute to your bad mood. To avoid feeling hungry, scientists recommend eating small portions of nutritious foods on a regular basis to keep you well nourished.”
There’s another reason why we scoff at chocolate milk when we’re out of chips – it makes us feel better.
Rob Hobson, registered nutritionist, sports nutritionist and supplement supplier consultant Health spansays: ‘Some animal studies have shown that physical or emotional stress increases the intake of foods high in fat and sugar.
‘It is thought that elevated cortisol levels in combination with insulin may be responsible.
And once ingested, foods high in fat and sugar seem to have a feedback effect that dampens stress-related responses and emotions. They really are ‘comfort foods’.’
Conquer that craving! Simple hacks to temper your dessert cravings
So how do we avoid this roller coaster of stress, sugar cravings and crashing? “Following a healthy, low GI (glycemic index) Mediterranean diet helps prevent these sugar swings and food cravings,” says medical nutritionist Dr. Sarah Brewer.
“And if you’re in the mood for something sweet, opt for sweet fruits like berries, nectarines, and cherries instead of sugary confectionery, and if you really need heavy carbs, try a banana or a handful of dried fruit.”
Walk 15 minutes
Chocolate cravings can often be overcome by vigorous exercise, which releases the brain’s own opium-like chemicals, such as endorphins and enkephalins.
A 2015 study from the University of Innsbruck in Austria of 47 “overweight consumers with sugary snacks” found that just a 15-minute walk after exercise reduced cravings for sweet treats than people who remained inactive.
Keep a diary
Learning to understand what you’re eating, and why, is the first step to resolving emotional eating, Dr. Brewer says.
“If you’re feeling stressed, take a walk or a bath to relax, instead of reaching for the cookie jar.” Or spend 15 minutes writing about what matters most to you, whether it’s relationships, friends, music, or your kids.
“Women who were asked to write in a ‘feeling diary’ every day about what they thought was important had less appetite and lost more weight over the following four months than women who instead wrote about what they thought was important to others.”
Try a supplement
Chromium has beneficial effects on glucose metabolism. It improves the uptake of glucose into cells by increasing the number of active insulin receptors that move to the cell surface. This makes it easier for insulin to act as the key for glucose to enter cells, leading to increased insulin sensitivity in people with type 2 diabetes.
“Another thing people may want to consider is to try taking chromium. This mineral helps regulate blood sugar levels and some people find that it helps them get a handle on their sugar cravings.