Chocolate Addiction Treatment: Exercise, Baby!

Exercise curbs choco addiction: Almost a third of all Americans and a huge proportion of people in developed countries now struggle to break the grip of an obesity epidemic—and a new study linking exercise to decreased chocolate addiction can be of critical help.

Office workers, in particular, who are forced by heavy workloads, long hours and shifting schedules to sit at their desk all day and engage in stress eating, have higher odds of becoming obese.

A recent study suggests that walking to the office or getting up during the day could help the growing number of white-collar workers keep the pounds off.

The study, done by researchers from the University of Exeter, showed that snacking on chocolate was cut in half after treadmill use. The study was published in the journal Appetite on July 2011 [via Science Direct].

The researchers, Hwajung Oh and Adrian H. Taylor, said they embarked on their study because “workplace snacking can contribute to obesity.” The two scientists decided to investigate the effects of exercise on actual chocolate consumption, since previous studies had proven that exercise reduces chocolate cravings but the effects on chocolate consumption had been unknown.

The study took place in a simulated office and looked at 78 regular chocolate eaters who had abstained from eating chocolate for two days. All participants were given a bowl of chocolate at their desk while working and could eat as much as they wanted.

Participants were then grouped into two: the first group were asked to rest before being given a work assignment, while the other group took a brisk 15-minute walk on a treadmill first.

The group that had taken the walk ate about 15 grams of chocolate during their work, while the group that had rested ate 28 grams.

Half of the study participants had been given an easy work task, while the other half had been given a more demanding one. The study showed that the difficulty of the work made no difference in the amount of chocolate eaten, suggesting that stress was not was not a factor.

Reporting on the study, Neil Wagner of The Atlantic said that the findings did not make it clear if exercise in general or walking specifically was responsible for making chocolate less appealing. “But it does suggest a strategy for anyone who snacks at work and wants to cut down. The next time the cravings hit, get up from your desk and walk around,” he said.

An earlier study conducted in 2008 by a different set of researchers also from the University of Exeter and also published in Appetite showed the similar results [via Science Daily].

A preliminary study, it made use of a smaller sample of 27 people.

“Our ongoing work consistently shows that brief bouts of physical activity reduce cigarette cravings, but this is the first study to link exercise to reduced chocolate cravings,” wrote Dr. Adrian Taylor, lead author.

“Neuroscientists have suggested common processes in the reward centers of the brain between drug and food addictions, and it may be that exercise effects brain chemicals that help to regulate mood and cravings,” Dr. Taylor said. “This could be good news for people who struggle to manage their cravings for sugary snacks and want to lose weight.”

“Chocolate has a number of biologically active constituents that temporarily enhance our mood with a result that eating it can become a habit, particularly when we are under stress and when it is readily available, and perhaps when we are least active,” he said.

As addictive as alcohol, marijuana
A number of previous studies have found that chocolate contains many substances that are also found in wine, beer, liquor and marijuana.

Researchers at the Spanish Council for Scientific Research in Madrid, Spain were the first to find that ordinary cocoa and chocolate bars contain a group of neuroactive alkaloids known as tetrahydro-beta-carbolines—the same chemicals found in wine, beer and liquor.

Apart from the alkaloid compounds, chocolates also had caffeine and magnesium, also known to be addictive, researchers said in a study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

In previous research, these alkaloids were linked to alcoholism, and in an earlier study, Italian scientists identified in chocolate a pleasure-inducing compound called anandamide as well as other compounds that could mimic the effects of marijuana.

The Italian study concluded that stomach acids break down these substances before they enter the bloodstream, but researchers at the University of California at Irvine disputed that finding.

Another review published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association confirmed that chocolate can be addicting—and that women were more prone to chocolate cravings than men.

The Diabetes Association report found that only 15 percent of males appear to crave chocolate while as much as 40 percent of women do—and 75 percent of them claim that absolutely nothing other than chocolate can satisfy their appetite.

“With a sedentary lifestyle we may naturally turn to mood regulating behaviors such as eating chocolate,” notes Prof. Taylor. “While enjoying the occasional chocolate bar is fine, in time, regular eating may lead to stronger cravings during stress and when it is readily available.”

“Short bouts of physical activity can help to regulate how energized and pleasant we feel, and accumulating 30 minutes of daily physical activity—with two 15 minute brisk walks, for example—not only provides general physical and mental health benefits but also may help to regulate our energy intake,” he concluded.

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