Chocolate: smooth, rich, creamy, and aromatic on your tongue. Sweet and milky or dark and bitter. Chocolate cookies, chocolate ice cream, and chocolate chips. Do you consider chocolate a feel-good food? You’re not alone. It has been widely regarded as one of the commonly craved foods today. But for those who have health or weight concerns, they may want to curb their craving for chocolate and other alluring foods. How then do you remove that powerful, persistent craving?
A new study conducted by the University of Sussex psychologists has found that doing more demanding tasks protects us from chocolate cravings. They said that previous studies focused on how distracted eating can lead to overeating. Yet, for their study, they suggest that busy tasks are helpful in terms of reducing people’s thoughts about food.
Load Theory of Attention
The psychologists said that they applied a theoretical framework called the Load Theory in the area of eating behavior. In cognitive psychology, cognitive load refers to the used amount of working memory resources. The cognitive load theory is therefore based on various widely accepted theories about how human brains process and store information. It is built on the premise that the human brain can only do so many things at once so we need to be intentional about what we ask it to do.
The University of Sussex team said that by applying such a theoretical framework in their study, it enabled them to make predictions about when people are most vulnerable to triggers that could lead them to overeat. In the same way, they can also know how to avoid such.
Measuring how distracted participants are
Their work comprised two separate but same studies. In the first part, they asked their participants to do a visual search task. It was a case of looking for letters among other letters. The purpose was to place high or low demands on their attention. Images of appetizing food, including chocolate and doughnuts, and non-food items, like office equipment, were presented to the participants’ peripheral vision. The team then measured how distracted the participants are by these images.
In the second study, they created a single experiment, where participants were asked to hold a chocolate bar and rate their craving, hunger, and liking on said chocolate before they perform the same visual search task that they did in the first study. If they caught themselves thinking about the chocolate, they were instructed to press a button near them. Thought probes were also used by the psychologists if participants were interrupted in their work. Researchers would then ask them if they had been thinking of chocolate at that moment of interruption.
Doing an attention-demanding task
Results show that when participants are doing tasks that demand more of their attention, they were less distracted by food images or even less likely to remember those images. The team concluded that people are less likely to peek at the chocolate bar in their drawers if they are doing an attention-demanding task. On the other hand, even if people have already put their chocolate bar in their drawers and they can’t see it, they may find themselves thinking about it if they are doing a less demanding task. Their study appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General and Appetite.
The psychology behind why people love chocolate
Susan Albers Psy.D., a psychologist who specializes in eating issues and body image concerns, previously explained that on a biological level, we crave chocolate because it tastes, feels, and smells good. The experience of eating chocolate releases feel-good neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, in the body. It is the same neurotransmitter that is released when people experience anything that they enjoy, watching their favorite movie, laughing, or during lovemaking. Albers, who is not a part of the University of Sussex study, added that it is a reward circuit that is partially hard-wired by genetics.
Albers also consulted Amy Jo Stavnezer, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, to help explain how emotions play into cravings. Stavnezer said that emotions are only a part of what our brain is doing at a certain time. She mentioned the Central Executive brain regions that are constantly responding and monitoring to both external and internal experiences. Stressing such a cognitive system leads to food choices that are higher in calories. It happens because our brain consumes huge amounts of glucose. This is why it needs more energy when it is overworked.
Second, when the central executive is overwhelmed with the cognitive load, it cannot provide more processing space to think of a food choice.
Chocolate consumption statistics
According to BrandonGaille, 50% of the world’s chocolate retail sales happen in Europe while the US accounts for 20% of the world’s chocolate consumption. The average German, Swiss, or Brit citizen will eat around 24 pounds of chocolate per year. The leading producer of chocolate productions is Mars Inc. and its net sales are more than $17 billion every year.
Meanwhile, World Atlas shares that in 2018, Switzerland is the country that eats the most chocolate. The Swiss people consumes about 19.4 pounds of chocolate per capita per year. Their country likewise ensures that people in other countries are not deprived of their manufactured delicacies and they export across the world. Italy, France, UK, and Germany are their biggest markets.
Germany is the world’s second top consumer of chocolate products. Germans consume 17.8 pounds of chocolate per capita per year followed by Ireland (17.4 pounds per capita), United Kingdom (16.8 pounds per capita), and Sweden (14.6 pounds per capita).
Chocolate is made from cocoa beans. In the same year, countries with the highest cocoa bean production measured in tons were Indonesia (593,832.00 t), Nigeria (332,927.00 t), Cameroon (307,867.00 t), Brazil (239,387.00 t), and Ecuador (235,182.00 t). This is according to Our World in Data.
While there are a couple of cool perks to chocolate, such as cocoa is rich in antioxidants, there are also disadvantages to consuming too much of it. Chocolate is full of calories. It is high in sugar content and it affects the tooth. If a previous study shows that suppressing chocolate thoughts would just increase chocolate cravings, the University of Sussex research took a different approach and it could be as easy as completing a more demanding task.