About the author

Merlin Thomas MBChB, PhD, FRACP is Professor of Medicine at Monash University, Melbourne. Professor Thomas is both a physician and a research scientist. His research primarily focuses on diabetes and its complications, and finding practical means for their control, but he has a broader interest in all aspects of preventive medicine and ageing. He has published over 300 articles in many of the world’s leading medical journals, as well as several books, including Understanding Type 2 Diabetes and Fast Living, Slow Ageing. He is internationally recognized as a speaker, opinion-leader, teacher and medical storyteller.

PO Box 864, Chatswood, NSW 2057, Australia

226 High Street, Dunedin, 9016, New Zealand

ePub ISBN 978-1-77559-346-1

Typeset in Sabon 11/14pt

This book is a general guide only and should never be a substitute for the skill, knowledge and experience of a qualified medical professional dealing with the facts, circumstances and symptoms of a particular case. The nutritional, medical and health information presented in this book is based on the research, training and professional experience of the author, and is true and complete to the best of their knowledge. However, this book is intended only as an informative guide; it is not intended to replace or countermand the advice given by the reader’s personal physician. Because each person and situation is unique, the author and the publisher urge the reader to check with a qualified healthcare professional before using any procedure where there is a question as to its appropriateness. The author, publisher and their distributors are not responsible for any adverse effects or consequences resulting from the use of the information in this book. It is the responsibility of the reader to consult a physician or other qualified healthcare professional regarding their personal care. This book contains references to products that may not be available everywhere. The intent of the information provided is to be helpful; however, there is no guarantee of results associated with the information provided. Use of drug brand names is for educational purposes only and does not imply endorsement.



Do I really have to …

#1 Cut out the chocolate?

#2 Cut down on the booze?

#3 Cut down on the caffeine?

#4 Lose the waist?

#5 Get off the couch?

#6 Eat less fat?

#7 Eat less added sugar?

#8 Cut out the starch?

#9 Eat more fruit and vegetables?

#10 Lower my cholesterol?

#11 Lower my blood pressure?

#12 Breathe fresh air?

#13 Get more sunshine?

#14 Not catch cold?

#15 Avoid accidents?

#16 Deal with stress?

#17 Find love?


Read more about …




Many years ago I used to play cricket. In this complicated game the pinnacle of success is to score a hundred runs in a single innings. It was something I never achieved. Actually, I never even came close and seldom troubled the scorers when it came my turn to bat.

It was not that I was reckless or didn’t care. In fact, I cared a great deal. I was desperate not to get out. I practised hard. I read the histories of all the great century makers, the ones who could score a hundred almost at will, time after time. I copied their choices: what to go for, what to avoid. I visualized my success as if I were them. In my mind I reached every milestone with ease and enjoyed the accolades of my peers. I had the best intentions. Yet every time I went out to bat, I was duly sent back to the pavilion well before my time in the sun.

Perhaps the game was simply unfair. Perhaps I could blame my parents or my grandparents. My teammates were endowed with the cumulative prowess of generations past (and often reminded me of this fact). It was in their blood. It was in their genes. How could I possibly compete?

Once dismissed, I usually argued that the opposition was so exceedingly strong that even the mighty would fall. Or I was simply unlucky to receive a delivery of such potency that none could have withstood it, not without the direct intervention of God. What are the chances? Perhaps God rooted for the other team?

I blamed fate. I blamed karma. I blamed bad luck. I blamed the unassailable triumvirate of all of them at once that conspired against me.

And yet, despite my best efforts, our team was extraordinarily successful. We swept all before us in the junior competition and easily won the season-ending final.

The secret to our success was a batsman of singular talent. He was fearless, extravagant and calm under pressure, riding his luck. His extraordinary scoring ability remains unmatched to this present day. I had no idea how he did it.

I recall coming in to bat late on the first day of the final. We had lost nine wickets and one more out would trigger the end of the innings for our illustrious team.

At the other end of the pitch was my famous partner. His tally had already reached into the nineties and he was batting like he could easily reach a thousand before stumps.

As I came into the middle of the field we conferred, or rather, he told me the most important piece of advice that I have ever been told by anyone. He asked me: ‘Do you know what the secret to scoring a hundred is?’

Having read every book on the subject in the vain attempt to solve this conundrum, I was immediately ready with my answer. ‘The secret to scoring a hundred is not getting out,’ I replied assuredly.

‘That’s right,’ he scowled, ‘the secret to me getting to a hundred is you not getting out.’

We should all score a century. I’d still like to help if I can.

Fate, karma and bad luck

We often think of our prospects for a long innings in exactly these terms.

Sometimes we wonder if we are simply prisoners of our fate; that through no fault of our own, a chain of events is set in motion. And given a particular set of conditions, only one thing can happen. While it may seem like we have a choice, all paths ultimately lead to the same point. It is inevitable. It is our destiny.

For example, most people think of their genetics fatalistically, as a form of irreversible destiny that can’t be shrugged off no matter how hard we try. Our genes made this happen. We can’t choose our parents. The upshot of this is the idea that if we only had the tools to sequence every inch of our DNA we would be able to read our future, just like in the movies. Moreover, if we understood our fate early enough we could even do something about it pre-emptively, like a double mastectomy for a woman who has all the bad genes for breast cancer.

But while genes can significantly bias the course of our life, and genetic fate may be partly true for some rare genetic conditions, by and large it is not our genes that matter but what we do with them that is important. There is almost always substantial wriggle room, meaning that even with the bad genes, good outcomes can still occur. Equally, with all the good genes, things can still go horribly wrong.

Before the time of genetics (and other internal forces that set us down one path), the most important source of fate was God and, more specifically, that God had predetermined which events should or should not occur. Any significant problems that appeared completely out of our control, like illness and accidents, were attributed as an ‘Act of God’ in much the same way that our genes are often blamed today.

Yet in other situations, what happens to us seems to be the direct result of the things we have done or not done. There is justice in the universe. We reap what we sow. This is often called karma and each individual is said to be responsible for their own karma and its ultimate fruits. In this view everything we do or think has consequences or, in other words, all consequences have a cause (if we were smart enough or had the technology to see). Was it something I did wrong, doctor? Was it something I didn’t do? Is illness and ageing simply the accumulated consequences of bad karma; the modern equivalent of a curse for all the bad things we have done or the good things we didn’t do?

Critically, karma is not simply a dynamic form of fate (i.e. once we start the ball rolling it’s inevitably going to fall). Karma can be mitigated or unwound by other actions or intensions, especially efforts of self-control and austerity. Medicines are often viewed in this light — in order to restore our health we have to swallow the bitter pill, follow the punitive diet or exercise regime, lead an austere life devoid of chocolate, sugar and other pleasures, as though our punishment (puja) could counteract the bad karma of our past misdemeanours.

Finally, some things that happen to us feel like just dumb luck, like being struck on the head by a falling roof tile. Gee, that was unlucky! To be walking down the street at exactly the same time that the tile came loose and hit you on the head. What are the chances?

All luck works in this way, the random intersection of different causal pathways. All it took was for you to be there at that time. And then a second event, the tile falling off the roof, intersecting with your path. This is why luck is also often literally called coincidence — the common incidence of very different events at the same time and place. Because it only seems to happen very rarely (I mean, how common is it for people to be hit on the head by a falling tile?), coincidence seems remarkable. So we call it luck and attribute it some importance. But it is just as likely that if the tile fell at some other time when we weren’t around, we would have never known or even cared.

Without luck nothing comes together, and coincidence never happens without luck. However, it was inevitable that the faulty tile should fall off the roof someday. That was its fate. It was built that way. And of course the builder who incorrectly installed the tile on the roof in the first place is now in big trouble. He’ll be the one held to blame, rather than it being your fault for walking along the street at that time. But it was randomness or bad luck that the tile actually hit you.

People often feel unlucky to get sick. And for good reason! They’ve eaten all the right things, done their exercise and looked after their mind. They’ve walked down the sunny side of the street. And now they fall unwell. How unlucky! And it’s true, no matter what the doctors say, most disease is random and largely unpredictable when or if it strikes us.

But just because it is a random coincidence does not mean that it doesn’t have a cause or there’s nothing that could have been done to prevent it. The worker who laid the tiles on the roof could have done a better job, and that might have saved your head. Equally, heavy smokers have only a one in ten chance of getting lung cancer. It’s still their smoking that is to blame. But there is a random play of luck that eventually leads to them getting cancer.

The element of luck is seldom part of any discussion when doctors talk to their patients. Imagine a doctor telling a smoker with cancer, ‘Oh you were just unlucky.’ Luck is not part of the discussion because most people think of luck as a poor excuse for not understanding, like superstition. However, luck is real. It’s random but it’s real. And it is as important a reason for staying in or getting out as skill or destiny.

But is also possible to change our luck. The more tiles the tiler messed up, the greater the chances one would have fallen on someone’s head. The same with a smoker. The more cigarettes they smoke, the greater the chances they will get lung cancer. So even though coincidence happens randomly, karma and fate provide the causal substrate upon which luck can play out. In this way, we can all make our own luck on our way to a hundred not out.

The checklist

The way we often start doing what needs to be done is by making a list. I did.

Our brain loves lists. Lists are like an easy, ready-made meal; they require little preparation before our brain can consume and digest them without much chewing over their contents. The information they convey is already organized, easy to remember, succinct, to the (bullet) point. They have a beginning and (thankfully) a finite end.

The whole point of lists is to distil a lot of ideas into the semblance of a plan downloaded onto a piece of paper the size of a paper napkin. Each dot point is a door into an entirely different universe of thought now neatly separated from other notions.

There are many different ways human beings can shorten their lives. By and large we take very few of them. For example, while researching this book, the only really useful thing I did was make this list.

It’s not rocket science. Everyone I spoke to had a list very similar. Even the World Health Organization has a list of the most important things we should probably all be doing to improve our health prospects.

There are a million other things we might think of doing for our health and wellbeing. However, for the most part, there are just a few things we currently think are really important, or at least important enough to warrant listing them or telling them with conviction to others, like our children. Your order of priorities will almost certainly be different to mine. So you can make your own list and dip into this book where you want.

Each chapter is dedicated to understanding why a few elements have become so important to our health that we are prepared to list them as priorities. And why, when we go against them, we feel guilty, as if we have probably done something bad and half expect there will be consequences.

This book can tell you the why or why not, but not how. How we can ever achieve any of the things on our lists is up to the individual. There is no generic solution, no panacea or universal remedy. We are all good at different things and bad at others.

No matter what the advertising says, one size never fits all. This doesn’t mean that nothing ever fits properly. It’s just that we need to take a bit of time finding out what fits well and feels good and what doesn’t. Making a checklist is as good a place as any to start.

Do I really have to …


Cut out the chocolate?

Q: Why is chocolate a bad thing?

A: It isn’t (except for dogs).

Q: Is dark chocolate better than white?

A: White chocolate isn’t really chocolate.

Q: Isn’t chocolate just fat and sugar?

A: No, it’s so much more.

Q: Can chocolate ever be good?

A: Chocolate is always good. It’s us who are sometimes bad.

Q: Why does it make me feel so much better?

A: Because it’s chocolate!

Q: Can chocolate improve my sex life?

A: Depends on who you are giving it to, as well as when and why.

There is nothing like chocolate. When it comes to exclusive luxury and hedonic appeal, its taste, texture, aroma and presentation are hard to beat.

On average, we consume around 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) of chocolate per person, every year. And often even more. After we eat our chocolate Easter eggs, then there’s Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Halloween and Christmas, not to mention Valentine’s Day. We know we eat too much of everything! But why is it that when we think about all the things we might have to do away with to improve our health, our chocolate fix is always first on the chopping block when the health revolution comes?

A slice of heaven

Chocolate is made from the seeds of the cacao tree. These are usually called cocoa beans. But while they may look a little like beans and come from a pod, they are not beans. They are actually seeds.

For millennia, products made from cocoa have been considered a valuable and exclusive item. So much so that cocoa seeds were used as a form of currency by the ancient Aztecs. They also spent them to make a hot beverage, so were literally drinking their money away if they had some to spare.

Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and physicist who provided the scientific names for so many things, named the cocoa tree Theobroma cacao, which comes from the Greek words theo (meaning god) and broma (meaning drink, as in brew) i.e. the gods drink cocoa. Across Central America, the Mayan people believed that hot chocolate was the drink of choice for their gods, just like soma was for the gods of Hindu mythology and ambrosia for the Greek deities. However, unlike these other mythical beverages, which were kept strictly top-secret and beyond the reach of mortal men, the classified recipe for cocoa was leaked to the Mayan people by Quetzalcoatl.

Forbidden fruit

image Quetzalcoatl was the infamous feathered serpent god of Aztec mythology. He was part bird and part rattlesnake. But he was also the god of learning and knowledge.

On one of his visits from Heaven he gave mortal humans the knowledge of how to make chocolate. Not surprisingly, the other gods were upset about this. They felt that the great unwashed masses were far too plebeian to appreciate this slice of heaven.

As in the Garden of Eden, the half-serpent was ridiculed and punished for letting the intelligence slip and giving away forbidden fruits that had previously been exclusively for gods.

In deference to the gods, humans found an acceptable compromise. They agreed that only the ‘god-like’ royalty and the upper classes were allowed to drink chocolate, and only on special festive occasions. Not too much has changed.

The allure of exotic mystery, its supernatural origins, fashion and exclusivity all partly explain why the West — and subsequently the entire world — fell in love with chocolate.

Cocoa first reached Europe in the 17th century. It became the first beverage stimulant with mass appeal, a mantle only later supplanted by coffee and tea. Because it only came in very limited supply from imposingly distant places, it was also imposingly pricey. After gold, cacao was the next most precious commodity imported into Europe from the New World.

Not surprisingly, given its super-exclusive status, chocolate quickly became the vogue drink of the curious and worldly aristocracy. Anyone who could afford chocolate wanted a piece of the action, even though it was almost undrinkable by today’s standards. At least initially it was all about the show, a status symbol like diamonds or a fancy car. Giving chocolates became a way of saying that we’d wish to treat her like a princess, because any good princess was eating chocolates or at least expected her prince to have enough money to buy them for her.

Not wishing to miss out on a heavenly good party, the clergy also became fascinated by chocolate. But when periods of strict fasting were prescribed, chocolate made it harder to comply. We all know the feeling. To fix this dilemma, the Bishop of Rome made a dispensation that taking chocolate did not mean that the devout had broken their fast. At least officially, chocolate was not sinful.

At the same time, Europe was changing. Gone were the dark days of frugal subsistence. A growing middle class of people emerged with a disposable income and appetite to bridge the social divide. The consumer revolution rolled like a tsunami across the countryside. Drinking chocolate really took off, along with other, newly fashionable and formerly exclusive products such as sugar, tobacco, tea and coffee in the vanguard. Chocolate consumption became an indulgent attempt by some to rise above their station in fashionable society.

Café culture

image Since the origins of civilization, there have always been sites of public gathering, gossip and communal eating and drinking. These were public houses, and so called ‘pubs’ for short.

But the advent of a new beverage (chocolate), and a far better clientele, required a new kind of public house. And so the Chocolate House was born. All the bigwigs, dukes, earls and lords now had a place to hang out together. Not unlike modern bars, the original chocolate houses were centres of debauched glory, smoking, plotting, scandal, gambling, politics and business. They were a great place to work off your hangover. And there were no women allowed.

But even if drinking chocolate made us look and feel fashionable in the 17th century, why would it still have the same allure today? Fashions like wigs, hats and pantyhose have come and gone, and come and gone again. But chocolate has been a constant companion, even though the advent of mass production means it is now accessible to almost every run of the mill human being on the planet. If everyone can get some chocolate whenever they like, there must be more to its appeal than the enduring placebo of fashion and luxury.

The hot pleasure of chocolate

Another obvious reason why chocolate has become so popular is simply the pursuit of pleasure (known as hedonism). And drinking and eating chocolate is certainly physically and mentally pleasurable.

Cocoa probably wasn’t that tasty in the beginning. The combination of ingredients that we call chocolate today is a far cry from the acrid cacao beverage drunk in 17th-century Europe. A typical mug of chocolate was likely a far worse prospect than any instant coffee available today.

But it was hot. And in a world without central heating, it felt nice to be warmed from the inside. It was also frothy. The froth has long been considered the best part. Even the Mayans made sure that their chocolate drink had a deliciously sensual foam, as they poured the brew back and forth from cup to pot.

As more and more people began to drink it, the acrid chocolate brew slowly evolved into something more than simply palatable. Cinnamon, vanilla, chilli and other spices were occasionally added. And then came sugar. The Mayans had sometimes used honey, but the addition of cane sugar really transformed cocoa into the chocolate superstar it is today.

It turns out that chocolate is a highly versatile delivery system for sugar. As discussed in later chapters, it’s universal to the human condition to enjoy something sweet. But not too sweet. And this is why chocolate is almost perfect. Most modern chocolates are really just a thin coating of chocolate over a generous sugar filling. But because chocolate contains some very bitter chemicals, it is possible to disguise an intensely sweet substance like malted milk with dark chocolate. Suddenly almost everyone can enjoy Maltesers (similar to American Whoppers) with or without a sweet tooth. By contrast, the sweet filling inside on its own would have very few takers.

The next breakthrough came when cocoa engineers discovered ways to make solid chocolate suitable for storage and mass production and yet, at the same time, still soft enough so that it readily melted in the mouth.

Getting hard

image Cocoa beans are fermented and roasted like coffee. They are then left hanging in big bags in a hot room, which allows white cocoa butter to melt and drip off the beans. The solids left behind in the bags are then dried and crushed into cocoa powder, also known simply as cocoa.

Most of the chemicals, antioxidants and bitter taste are in the cocoa powder. This was used to make the original hot drink. The cocoa butter was historically considered a tasteless waste product.

However, cocoa butter had some interesting properties. It could be stored for over a year and didn’t become rancid. It was velvety smooth and smelled quite pleasant. At room temperature, it even became solid, taking the shape of whatever it was collected in. But it could be made liquid by heating it slightly above body temperature.

In retrospect it seems obvious what to do with it. But it wasn’t until 1847 that Joseph Fry conceived of reuniting extracted cocoa butter and cocoa powder. He added some sugar for taste, and the chocolate bar was born.

Whether he was visionary or simply thrifty is unclear. However, his revolutionary contribution to the culinary arts is probably the most important to ever come out of England, exceeding even fish and chips or cheddar cheese.

This perfect chemistry comes about from the way the fat molecules in chocolate are densely packed. This keeps chocolate solid at room temperature, like butter. And like butter, chocolate melts as it is warmed up. But this happens only very slowly, and over a temperature range close to body temperature (between 34°C and 38°C, or 93°F and 100°F). This allows chocolate to slowly soften and not immediately become liquid, creating a lovely melting sensation that only fat can achieve as it warms towards body temperature in our mouth. It also keeps our fingers clean for the few seconds it takes to transfer a chocolate to our lips. This is very different to ice, which at one moment is frozen solid and the next is a puddle. Sucking on ice is a wholly different experience to the wonderfully pleasurable warm soft sensation of letting chocolate melt in our mouth.

By melting and/or solidifying so easily, it means that we can pour chocolate into moulds of almost any shape (even a hollow egg) and have it set hard, at least until it reaches our lips. We can have a fountain of liquid chocolate or a castle of solid chocolate, which would never be possible with almost any other cooking ingredient. Even melted butter never perfectly returns to its original form.


image Melting chocolate only became a big issue on really hot days or if you had some sitting in your pocket. The smart solution was to insulate the chocolate in a crispy thin layer of sugar (which doesn’t melt easily but quickly dissolves when mixed with the moisture of your mouth). These became known as Smarties.

Their success was revolutionary. Even soldiers could now carry chocolates without getting their rifle or their trigger finger sticky.

But Forrest Mars Sr was the real chocolate smarty. While working for England in the 1930s he had invented Maltesers, a ball of malted milk coated with chocolate. However, during the Spanish Civil War he saw soldiers eating Smarties, with chocolate safely on the inside of the candy. On his return to America, he quickly patented his own process and in 1941 the first M&Ms began to be produced.

The first ‘M’ stood for Mars himself. The second stood for Bruce Murrie, son of the head of Hershey chocolates. There was a war on in Europe at the time, so only Hershey’s had an assured supply of chocolate. Soon the heat-resistant, easy-to-transport chocolate was included in American soldiers’ rations. And the rest is history.

Through ongoing experimentation, Lindt, Cadbury, Nestlé and a host of other chocolate entrepreneurs discovered new ways to make cocoa powder less bitter, by adding more sugar or evaporated milk, or simply alkalinizing it to take out the bitter bits (known as dutching — and hence Dutch chocolate). And by progressively getting rid of any negatives, chocolate became the mouth-watering treat we know and love today.

Chocolate on the brain

Beyond the exclusive luxury and the sweet melt-in-the-mouth pleasures of chocolate, another important reason that it took off in popularity was that it was considered to be an exotic mind-altering drug, and was sold as such.

Some of this effect is clearly psychological. We all feel good after being treated to a little bit of delicious luxury. A little indulgence (or the perception of one) can lift our mood and alter the chemistry of our brain. This is particularly the case for chocolate.

In addition to the psychology, there really are mind-altering chemicals in chocolate that have reproducible effects on our brain and the way it functions. Just as coffee is a drug mule for caffeine (see Chapter 3), chocolate delivers to our brain another potent drug called theobromine. Its chemistry is about 98 per cent the same as caffeine. So theobromine has a similar ‘pick-me-up’ effect on our brain to a cup of tea or coffee, helping us to focus, lifting our mood and creating a sense of optimism.

In racehorses, both caffeine and theobromine are banned substances because they are both performance enhancing. Most tea and coffee drinkers and chocolate eaters would agree on these performance-enhancing qualities, as the afternoon chocolate bar or cup of tea is only thing that gets them through their three o’clock slump.

Theobromine also shares other characteristics with caffeine. For example, both can cause heartburn in some people, by relaxing the sphincter that keeps acids safely in our stomach, allowing it instead to reflux upward, and producing the characteristic burning deep in our chests (which fortunately has nothing to do with our hearts).

Don’t feed dogs chocolate

image Like caffeine, theobromine is highly toxic to dogs. Even a small piece of dark chocolate can lead to serious and potentially fatal symptoms in dogs. This may be considered definitive proof that chocolate really is a mind-altering drug.

The reason why dogs find dark chocolate poisonous is that they don’t have the enzyme in their liver that breaks theobromine and caffeine down, so even small doses can rapidly accumulate. Humans, on the other hand, have the enzyme in spades, so less than 10 per cent of the theobromine we eat even reaches our circulation, let alone our brain. So we humans are virtually immune to chocolate poisoning.

Cats also don’t have the enzyme. But cats are fussy carnivores, and would rather lick the sweat off your arm than touch chocolate. Dogs, like humans, will eat almost anything they are given. But even if it wasn’t toxic to them, why would we waste our good chocolate on our pets?

High levels of theobromine are only found in products made from cocoa powder, with much smaller amounts in the fat-rich cocoa butter. This means that a hot chocolate made with cocoa powder contains more theobromine than one made of drinking chocolate (which is essentially just shredded milk chocolate made with cocoa butter).

Because it is more cocoa than butter, a single bar of dark chocolate usually contains enough theobromine to change our minds. However, even though it looks dark, Dutch chocolate has less theobromine, as the dutching process removes some theobromine along with the bitterness.

Regular milk chocolate has smaller amounts again of theobromine, as it is made of almost four times less cocoa powder (so we’d generally need to eat four times more milk chocolate than dark chocolate to get the same buzz). White chocolate is made exclusively with cocoa butter and has almost no theobromine to speak of. Some theobromine is also found in tea and in the cola nut, hence the buzz from many cola-based soft drinks.

Because of the many similarities between caffeine (in tea and coffee) and theobromine (in chocolate), people who are don’t drink tea or coffee are generally more sensitive to the stimulating effects of dark chocolate on their brain. As chocolate arrived in Renaissance Europe before coffee and tea had a foothold, the early buzz surrounding it was therefore hardly surprising.

Chocolate has been historically considered a woman’s drink, and coffee a man’s. And certainly, women are slightly more sensitive than men to its effects, especially when they are pregnant. Women are also more sensitive to caffeine in coffee and tea. However, coffee is more bitter, even when compared to hot cocoa. And women generally have more of a sweet tooth than men.

Not surprisingly, children also get a greater kick from theobromine than adults. This chocolate buzz is one of many reasons many of us have a soft spot for chocolate, remembering the powerful effects on our mood from when we were young.

As well as the caffeine-like theobromine, chocolate also contains small amounts of the chemical serotonin. Serotonin is naturally found in our brains and is used by brain cells to signal to each other. When brain serotonin levels drop we are more prone to feeling low in our mood or anxious. On the other hand, increased serotonin levels enhance our mood, partly by increasing our sense of satisfaction. Whether the serotonin in chocolate really does anything for us is unclear. Many other foods also contain serotonin, such as bananas. But we can’t say we feel the same after eating a banana, when compared to eating chocolate.

Chocolate even contains anandamide, a substance related to the active component of cannabis. However, the kind of amounts needed to get the same effects of cannabis would tax even the most serious chocolate lover.

The real effects of chocolate chemicals on our brain, and their similarity to caffeine, has led many to believe that chocolate is just as addictive. A condition known as chocolatomania has been described, especially among women, associated with insatiable cravings for chocolate. And, as with caffeine, some of this may be chemical addiction and some psychological.

It’s easy to argue semantics. Our chocolate cravings can’t really be an addiction if they don’t have major negative consequences to our health, mental state or social life. At worst chocolate is a soft addiction or, more simply, a bad habit. At least that’s something we can concede when staring down a chocolate bar. But bad habits are hard to break, and this is especially true of chocolate. It is well known that taking the chocolate away (going cold turkey) makes us crave it and like chocolate even more when it’s gone. So it’s hard not to fall off the wagon and return to the chocolate bars.

Chocolate, the aphrodisiac

There may be many ways to a woman’s heart, but is a box of chocolates really one of them?

Some foods are thought to enhance the sexual desires. These are known as libido enhancers or aphrodisiacs. Many products have acquired an aphrodisiac reputation simply because they were once exotic, exclusive or unfamiliar, which added to their allure and eventually to their reputation. Cigarettes, coffee and even sugar have all had a reputation of being sexual enhancers. Oysters, caviar and bananas have also had their appeal. However, chocolate is the best loved of all.

Long before Richard Cadbury developed the clever marketing ploy of putting chocolate in a heart-shaped box for Valentine’s Day, chocolate had been promoted as a libido enhancer. Even in Aztec times, cocoa was touted as Montezuma’s secret source of unrivalled virility. Whether it was because he drank it or gave it to his mistresses is unclear.

Media hype

image The medicinal qualities of chocolate were well known in Renaissance Europe. However, it was its dark and exotic effects on libido that were perhaps the most fascinating.

Louis Lemery was the physician to the King of France in the early 18th century. Lemery believed that the key to health was what you ate and drank. So he put together a definitive treatise on the health effects of all the foods and drinkables he could think of. In his book, published in England after his death in 1745, he describes chocolate as ‘nourishing enough … apt to repair decayed strength … agrees with cold weather, especially in old people’.

However, he also added an anecdote reported to him by Dr Munday, a ribald London colleague. Dr Munday describes how one of his patients ‘was in a miserable condition, but taking to the supping of chocolate, he recovered in a short time; but what is more extraordinary is, that his wife … having also accustomed herself to sup chocolate with him, bore afterwards several children, though she was looked upon before as not capable of having any’.

Not surprisingly, the public response to such an incredible write-up was as predictable as the faked orgasm scene from the movie When Harry met Sally. We all want what she’s having!

It is tempting to hypothesize that chocolate is actually an aphrodisiac. It is almost believable. But as they say, the trick of the very best advertising is that there is usually some truth in it somewhere. Never as much as they say, but enough to make us believe that it might just be working. This is perfectly true for chocolate. Some studies have even supported the notion that women who eat chocolate have a greater libido than those who don’t.

Part of the aura about chocolate as an aphrodisiac is likely sympathetic magic. If two things are alike, then it might be possible to garner the same effects from them. Hence the fallacious appeal of rhino horn! Sex and hot chocolate also have much in common as the warm rewarding buzz and blood-vessel-dilating flavonoids help us relax and flush our skin. Is it love or is it just the hot chocolate?

Of course the other sexy thing about chocolate is its obvious appeal to the senses. In mammals, taste and odour are among the most important determinants of sexual attractiveness and receptiveness. The existence of an equivalent human pheromone remains to be established, but if there was one, it would probably smell and taste like chocolate on Valentine’s Day. This, combined with the sensory qualities of creamy chocolate melting in the mouth, may actually be far more stimulating to the brain than any mind-altering chemicals contained therein.

Some of the effect of giving and receiving chocolates is also connotation (i.e. the thought behind the gift). Any gift should imply that you’re showing some attention, and an attentive partner always gets more sex. In the same way, men who help with housework also have more and better sex. It’s not the cleaning of the toilet or giving the chocolate that are the aphrodisiacs, but the bonding that comes from the act. It isn’t what he did, it’s the why did he do it that gets the results.

The sexual impact of chocolate is also partly contextual; like on an anniversary or Valentine’s Day, traditionally we use chocolates to profess love or fidelity. On such days, an intended partner may be more likely to get the intimate meaning of your gift.

Finally, just knowing that something might have anything to do with sex sows the seed, and our mind does the rest. Aphrodisiacs only work because we want them to. There is no biological reason for chocolate or any other aphrodisiac to work. Sexual desire is all in the mind anyway.

Chocolate as medicine

Another possible reason that chocolate has maintained its popularity is that it hasn’t obviously killed millions of people, unlike other chemical vices such as smoking, alcohol, drug taking and other classic vices that we would never think of introducing to our children as we do with chocolate. If anything, chocolate comes out smelling like roses.

The idea of the ‘health-giving properties’ of chocolate partly comes from the old-fashioned idea that being fat was a sign of robust good health. It’s easy to understand why we might have thought this at a time when starving waifs were dying of infection or simply starving. The fats in cocoa butter were a potent source of calories throughout many wars, though they are now unwanted in the modern war against our waistline.

However, even in the overly fat modern world, where everyone slams eating chocolate, a number of studies have linked its consumption with improved health, including lower rates of high blood pressure and heart disease. And stretching the chocolate wrapper even further, it turns out that Nobel Prize winners (during their prize-winning research) consume significantly more chocolate than the population average. In no way does correlation prove causality, but at least it gives scientists something to think about (while they are eating chocolate).

Cocoa itself has long been considered to contain magical chemical elements associated with health-enhancing properties. As discussed earlier, part of this is the buzz from theobromine. However, cocoa powder also has a high content of special, flavoursome chemicals known as flavanols, which appropriately contribute to the magical taste and aroma of chocolate.

A walk down the dark side

image It is often recommended that the darker the chocolate the better it is for our health. After all, like the moon, the original Mayan chocolate drink was all dark, made entirely from cocoa powder.

The key flavanols are almost entirely found in the solid cocoa used to make cocoa powder. Most dark chocolate we eat today is 70 per cent to 80 per cent cocoa solids, so has the highest content of flavanols.

Health-wise, this looks a whole lot better than milk chocolate, which in the US can contain as little as 10 per cent cocoa powder, but in most other countries is more like 20 per cent.

White chocolate on the other hand is based on cocoa butter only. It contains no cocoa solids, and therefore no flavanols. Some people don’t consider that white chocolate is even chocolate at all, merely sugar and fat.

Many of these flavoursome flavanols in cocoa have the potential to act not only on our senses but directly in our bodies as well. For example, a trial was conducted where some participants were randomly assigned to receive concentrated dark chocolate in a capsule or an inactive blank or placebo. In this way they had no idea whether they got chocolate or not. Then the different responses were compared. And it turned out that the lucky ones who got the chocolate did slightly better on important things like memory, blood pressure, clotting and the function of blood vessels.

This shows that chocolate’s flavanols can have a biological effect. But it does not mean chocolate will actually do this in real life. In most studies the very large doses that are used to demonstrate some kind of biological activity could never be achieved by regular chocolate eaters (or at least without significant detriment to their waistlines). It is possible that everyday doses of chocolate over the long term may accumulate some of the same benefits. But these studies have not been and probably will never be performed outside of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Some scientists claim that chocolate can lower cholesterol levels in the blood. Of course, cocoa butter is plant based, so contains little or no cholesterol (see Chapter 10). Some chocolate flavonols, like epicatechin for example, may actually lower cholesterol levels, but again, only when given in high doses.

It is also true that cocoa butter (i.e. the fat dripped out of cocoa beans and added back into chocolate to help it set) contains significant amounts of monounsaturated fat, especially oleic acid and stearic acid. These are the same fats also associated with some of the cholesterol-lowering and health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, rich in olives and nuts (see Chapter 6).

However, the big problem is that cocoa butter also contains lots of saturated fat, and along with the saturated milk fats added to most milk chocolate, the typical milk chocolate has a far less favourable action on our cholesterol levels and our waistline.

Chocolate as a vice

Most people believe that chocolate is probably bad for them. Not sinful — the Bishop of Rome has seen to that — but at least potentially harmful. This perhaps adds to its allure, giving us the naughty thrill of doing something bad. But how did something as heavenly as chocolate get such a bad reputation?

When hot chocolate first reached Europe it was seen as fascinating, sexy, foreign, exclusive and intoxicating. But as the ardour cooled, reports came of deaths and babies mysteriously born with dark skin. This characterization was partly xenophobia, but it was also well known that chocolate stains were impossible to wash away. People began to wonder if they hadn’t been dancing with the devil after all. However, far from dissuading consumers, the mesmeric appeal of choclate’s dark side only added to its magic.

In the 1950s, research emerged that American businessmen were dying in droves from heart attacks, which rapidly became their leading cause of death. Curiously, this was not happening in post-war Europe, possibly because there was less to eat. So the inference was clear: the ‘American diet’ was to blame.

The first and most popular theory of the time was that it was the extra fat in the American diet that was poisoning everybody. These businessmen were eating lots of foods high in saturated fat like butter, lard, eggs, beef and, of course, the cocoa butter in chocolate. So putting two and two together, a public health scheme was hatched to radically change the way people ate. On this basis all fatty foods were vilified, along with smoking and salt, as ‘modern evils’ and the major preventable causes of death. In this erudite low-fat world, chocolate quickly became a quintessential vice. Whether or not saturated fat is actually the cause of our downfall is discussed elsewhere in this book, but the legacy of this ‘fat’ premise remains a major reason why we feel a little wicked when having another piece of chocolate.

Other researchers later blamed all the added sugars, or simply the excess food energy (known as calories) as the cause of obesity, diabetes and ultimately heart attacks and strokes. And of course, here again, chocolate, which is also rich in sugar and calories, looked doubly culpable.

Certainly, it should be making us fatter. Chocolate provides additional energy that our modern lives simply don’t need. The fat and sugar calories contained in a Snickers bar, for example, are similar to those expended by jogging for half an hour. And when we are trying to keep our waists in check, and especially if we are not jogging, every extra calorie counts.

But then again, there are many other things in our diet that provide just as many calories. Many of these fly under the radar. By contrast chocolate wears its calories on its sleeve. Typically there are about 500 calories for every 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of chocolate. It’s very obvious that we shouldn’t overdo it.

The chocolate paradox

image Nothing is a simple as it appears. Chocolate is full of fat, sugar and calories and yet some studies have shown that people who eat chocolate on a regular basis tend to be thinner than those who do not. This is known as the chocolate paradox.

Most rational people think this heretical conclusion is the work of chocoholic scientists hoping to validate their own extravagance by misinterpreting data, but it has actually been studied.

Overweight people already know that they should eat less, and usually the first things they are told to avoid are high-calorie snacks, like chocolate. Overweight people are less likely to admit they have eaten chocolate, due to feelings of guilt from eating the ‘wrong’ thing.

And yet it can be argued that the combination of chemicals inside chocolate helps us to feel satisfied sooner, so we would as a natural consequence eat less on average. This could be true of dark chocolate especially, as it is so high in flavanols. In this case, it could be said that if we eat for pleasure, chocolate gets us to climax sooner.

The problem is that everybody knows that that we all have a second stomach into which we can always fit chocolate. This is because the feeling of fullness and the intake of sufficient calories are not the only reasons we eat. Most of us get enough daily nutrients in a single meal, let alone three squares a day. So there must be other reasons why we would persist in eating more than we physically require.

Sometimes it’s just habit and routine. It’s meal time or break time so we eat. Other times it’s the pleasure we get from eating. This is known as hedonic eating. Whether it comes from the food, the company or just the satisfaction of sticking to our habits, eating for pleasure is thought to be a common cause of overeating. Moreover, as we gain weight, the pleasure we get from food often tapers off. This means we may need to eat more and more food to receive the same amount of pleasure. One piece of chocolate cake or one cookie just doesn’t do it for us anymore, not because we are still hungry, but because we are still not satisfied.

But sometimes the cause can also be the solution. If it’s pleasure we crave, a little chocolate can be a perfect gratification. And if it’s the good stuff (not milk chocolate) and is a little exclusive, all the better. This may partly explain the chocolate paradox, whereby chocolate eaters get the pleasures lacking in other food, so don’t need to eat more to get their kicks.

Comfort food

Many of us eat when we are stressed or feeling down. This is seldom a conscious thought, like ‘Oh, I’m feeling stressed; I will go and eat something’. But it is something all of us do from time to time, to a greater or lesser extent. And doing something that is pleasurable, positive and rewarding, like eating chocolate, provides a brief but real antidote for an unpleasant, negative and unrewarding day.

Negative stress makes us look for rewarding positives. This is partly the increased motivation to obtain a reward (i.e. the wanting) as well as the anticipated hedonic pleasure that we experience when we get our hands on it (i.e. the liking). These are not always the same thing. Liking usually comes first. But if we like it, then we are more likely to want it and react to cues that tell us to go and get it. Chocolate’s inevitably yummy taste and easy availability make it hard to resist as a perfect reward.

There are many plausible theories as to why sweet treats like chocolate have comforting properties.