You might eat chocolate because, well, you think it tastes darn good. But a new study, which finds a connection between eating chocolate and being depressed, raises questions about why people turn to the tasty treat.
The results show that people who score high on a screening test for depression consume more chocolate than those who aren't considered depressed.
The connection to mood appears to be specific to chocolate — there was no association between depression and other food components that might affect mood, such as caffeine, fat, carbohydrates and energy intake (all contained in chocolate), the researchers say.
"Our study confirms long-held suspicions that eating chocolate is something that people do when they are feeling down," study researcher Beatrice Golomb, a professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, said in a statement.
However, the study only points out that there is a link, and cannot explain why. Since the participants were not followed over time, the researchers don't know whether eating chocolate ameliorates or amplifies a sad mood. The possibilities are many — from using chocolate as a sort of natural Prozac to the idea that chocolate might have some role in driving depression.
The results will be published April 26 in Archives of Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association.
More depressed, more chocolate
While eating chocolate is commonly thought to lead to changes in mood, few studies have actually looked to see whether there really is an association.
The current study included around 930 people, about 70 percent men and 30 percent women, who were not taking antidepressants. The participants completed a depression screening survey and answered questions related to their chocolate consumption (The subjects were actually being screened to take part in a separate study looking at ways to lower cholesterol levels).
Those with scores that indicated they were possibly depressed ate an average of 8.4 one-ounce servings of chocolate per month, while those with lower scores ate an average of 5.4 servings per month. And those with the highest scores, possibly an indication of major depression, ate an average of 11.8 servings per month. For comparison, a Hershey's chocolate bar is 1.55 ounces.
Several hypotheses might explain the results, but all are speculative at this point.
If chocolate really does boost mood, people who are depressed might eat chocolate as a self-treatment for their depression. Chocolate does contain ingredients that can act as stimulants, which are known to elevate mood. However, these ingredients are present at quite low concentrations, which some feel are too low to cause an effect. Also, chocolate ingredients may boost production of "pleasure hormones" such as serotonin.
Ingredients in chocolate could cause inflammation in the body, which might be responsible for both chocolate cravings and depression.
While chocolate itself might cause a mood boost, certain other ingredients added to chocolate during production, such as artificial trans fats, could worsen mood and so balance out or even reverse the mood benefits, the researcher say.
Future studies are needed to determine how chocolate affects mood, and whether or not chocolate directly influences depression.