That melt-in-your mouth choccie treat may contain antioxidants, but what happens when the odd indulgence turns into addiction? Linda Smith looks outside the square at smart ways to eat chocolate, and how to solve a slip-up

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Chocoholics often cling to medical advice which suggests chocolate can be good for us. Regularly eating small amounts of dark chocolate – which is packed with antioxidants, protein and essential minerals – is said to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer, and contains chemicals that boost our happiness levels.

Sydney-based health and fitness coach Amelia Burton enjoys a small amount of chocolate each day and encourages the rest of us to do the same.

But the trick, she says, is stopping at just a few small pieces – stuffing our faces with this undeniably tasty treat can also pose some serious health risks. Chocolate is calorie dense and packed with sugar and fat and can easily cause weight gain, especially when other sugar and fat-laden ingredients are added, like caramel, nuts and biscuit wafers.

About 40g (10 teaspoons) of added sugar per day is the recommended intake for the average person. But Amelia says most of us consume about twice this (80g) each day, which equates to a whopping 30kg a year.

A lot of this extra sugar comes from sugary drinks, lollies and chocolate – a can of soft drink alone can contain around 10 teaspoons of sugar and just three squares of Lindt 70 per cent dark chocolate contains 8.4g (around two teaspoons) of sugar.

Fruit is also high in sugar but offers more nutritional value than chocolate, and the fibrous nature of fruit helps our bodies fight the insulin spike or ‘sugar high’ in a way that chocolate and lollies can’t.

Why does it seem so addictive?

Eating sugary foods like chocolate excites your appetite and activates the same neurotransmitters that prompt the brain’s pleasure state – in a similar way to what addictive drugs like heroin do.

Sydney-based nutritionist and dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan says regularly eating chocolate forms habits that can be difficult to break.

`Chocolate stimulates the reward centre of the brain, similar to other addictive substances, making us want it again and again,’’ she says.

``Basically, the more you eat and more often you have it the more your brain drives you to seek it out.’’

``Compounding this is habit. If you always have chocolate after your evening meal, for example, then you will have a craving for it at that time.’’

The other big problem with chocolate is that it contains sugar, fat and salt – three ingredients our bodies are programmed to crave.

``Manufacturers have cottoned on to the fact that the three drivers of hunger are sugar, fat and salt,’’ Burton explains.

``The more of this they add to their products the more we want to consume them. It’s a vicious cycle.
“The more chocolate we eat, the more we crave, and the more it takes to satisfy those cravings.’’

Burton posits that most of us can easily satisfy our sweet tooth with one to two pieces of chocolate, but that we often allow ourselves to eat more, and inadvertently worsen the cravings.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the fructose in chocolate tricks our brains into thinking we are still hungry, even if we’re not, which is why chocolate is easy to overeat.

What happens when we stop eating chocolate?

If you eat chocolate regularly and suddenly stop, your body notices and reacts in a similar way to what it would if you suddenly quit smoking or stopped drinking alcohol. If you want to attempt chocolate rehab you can expect to be irritable, lethargic and headachy, like any other addict coming off drugs. But soon your body will crave sugar less as it regains its insulin sensitivity.

``Your body definitely goes into sugar withdrawal,’’ Burton says of quitting chocolate.

``This can be in the form of mild to intense sugar cravings, mood swings, and in some cases headaches.

``There are two addictions that we are battling here – the hormonal addiction to excess sugar, which stimulates feelgood hormones dopamine and serotonin, and the habitual cravings of the 3pm or after-dinner munchies.

``It takes two weeks to break a habit and create a new one, so expect the withdrawals to be the most intense in the first three days and slowly disappear over two weeks,’’ Burton warns.

She recommends breaking a sugar addiction by going cold turkey for two weeks. Then introduce a small amount of dark chocolate (three squares) on the weekends as a treat.

'`The two week break resets your cravings and balances your hormones,’’ she says.

``Then you will be able to introduce the smaller amounts, which will satisfy you.’’