Enter the thin woman, melting that chocolate myth

November 26, 1999

SHIPPENSBURG, Pa. - The closest I've come to death is when I've accidentally stood between a stressed-out woman and the chocolate-bar vending machine in the lunch room. You would have thought I'd stepped between a mother grizzly and her cub.

As a man, of course, I don't get it, just as I don't get women's irrational hatred of the TV remote or their inability to speak to a dog or cat in a normal tone of voice.

I consume chocolate in mass quantities, but I've never registered any special comfort or the sort of religious ecstasy that women swear exists when they love a Dove.

Am I crazy? No. As usual, it is you women who are wrong.

Because in this month's Discover magazine there is an article about a study led by Dr. Debra Zellner professor of psychology at Shippensburg University that indicates the craving for chocolate is a cultural phenomenon that is based on a mental delusion, not a physiological need.


The study charted reported chocolate cravings as reported by men and women in the U.S. and compared them with men and women in Spain. Here, 46 percent of the women reported chocolate cravings, but only 17 percent of the men. Now if this were truly a physical phenomenon, those figures should be mirrored in other cultures. But they weren't. In Spain, 25 percent of both men and women reported chocoholism.

Zellner said she realizes that by exploding the myth that there is actually something in chocolate that women must have to survive, she's playing with dynamite.

"I was being interviewed by a woman from Time Magazine and the first thing she said was 'Don't you feel like a traitor to your sex? Now we don't have an excuse.'"

Zellner has created quite a stir with her study, and has appeared on CNN and in the pages of plenty of major publications. She's dark-haired with an easy, honest laugh and - if women want another reason to hate her - perfectly slender, which 90 percent of the woman I know would say disqualifies her from commenting on chocolate with any mark of authority.

Once, she assumed as everyone else did, that chocolate "needs" were a fact. Until one day when she casually mentioned chocolate cravings to a grad student from Madrid who had no idea what Zellner was talking about.

For years, researchers have attempted to find a magic elixir in chocolate that would explain its mood-soothing qualities in women. "Everybody wants there to be something you need; by now it's ingrained in our culture, that there has to be something there," Zellner said.

They thought it might be the same chemical that's in marijuana.

"But you would have to eat 25 pounds to get any effect," Zellner said.

Next they thought it might be magnesium.

"If that were true, women would be going around eating spinach like crazy."

Zellner believes the chocolate need is part psychological and part cultural.

First, American women have been told that chocolate helps, so there's a pretty strong built-in tendency to believe in its medicinal qualities. Second, eating in general is such a restrained activity here, that there's an inherent satisfaction in eating chocolate akin to indulging in a forbidden but pleasurable sin. In France, "if a woman wants chocolate, she's damn sure going to have some chocolate," Zellner says. But in America, it's irrationally rationed. "We are constantly aware of what we eat; everything that goes into our mouths is thought about."

In Spain, there is no such restraint. Mealtimes are celebrations, lasting a couple hours and food is enjoyed with no calorie counting, no fat analysis and no guilt. Of course they don't share Americans' aversion to walking, so the consequences of eating rich food are not as telling.

Zellner agrees that eating chocolate can release endorphins, the brains' messengers of pleasure. But that's pretty much true about any food you enjoy and is not limited to chocolate.

But happily, Zellner - and here she may save herself - believes her research opens, not shuts, the door to chocolate consumption.

"We deprive, deprive, deprive, and then when we do indulge we go crazy. If you want a candy bar you should have a candy bar; then you wouldn't crave it so much in the first place."

Easy for a thin woman to say.

Tim Rowland is Herald-Mail columnist

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