So you gave up wine and cheese for Lent, but couldn't quite manage chocolate? We joke about an "addiction" to Cadbury's finest, but scientists have found that there may be a chemical reason why you've already polished off the family's Creme Eggs with more than two weeks to go before Easter.
According to research by the University of Michigan, published in the US journal Current Biology last autumn, chocolate has an effect on the brain similar to that of opium. In the study, a neurotransmitter called enkephalin — an endorphin with similar properties to opium — surged when rats were fed M&M chocolates.
And when a drug was used to stimulate the area of the brain that releases enkephalin, the rats devoured twice as many M&Ms, presumably connecting the taste to this surge of endorphins.
Whether chocolate is truly as addictive as some drugs is still a moot point, but we can all recognise the siren call of sweet treats. So what is it, and how can we learn to control it?
Phil Parker is a hypnotist and neuro-linguistic programme (NLP) therapist with an interest in addictions. Creator of the Lightning Process, Phil teaches individuals how the brain and body interact, helping them to improve their health and life through gentle movement, meditation-like techniques and mental exercises. Phil, with fellow NLP practitioner and life coach Ali Campbell, will be holding a "Fear & Phobia Clinic" at the Vitality Show in London on March 21-24.
"When we crave foods that aren't especially healthy, such as chocolate — it's worth noting no one gets addicted to lettuce — we are fulfilling some need," says Phil. "It's either due to boredom or it's about comfort; you are alone, but not through choice."
It's easy for a vicious circle to be established. "You don't like how you look, so you don't want to go out, so you feel lonely. You comfort yourself while staving off boredom by eating chocolate. But, of course, comfort yourself like this too much and too often and you'll put on weight and feel worse about yourself."
However, he points out, the solution can be simple. "Whenever you are about to indulge in addictive behaviour, pause. Ask yourself, what do I actually want? Ask, 'What am I getting through this?' If it is distraction from boredom, it's easy to find a better solution than eating a square of chocolate." That might include having a warm bath, reading a book, or taking up a hobby. "If the hole you are looking to fill is deeper," warns Phil, "you need to ask, what am I searching for: friends, family, a partner?"
In the short term, try phoning a friend; for longer-term happiness, consider joining a club and expanding your social circle. Phil suggests an NLP trick to help your resolve, called the blowout technique.
"Think back to a time when you gorged on chocolate. Remember that sickly feeling. That connection can be a powerful alert to prevent you giving in to cravings. With the right motivation, you can rewire the brain not to crave any food. Addiction is a set of well-rehearsed behaviours that need to be changed, and you can do it."