Crave chocolate? You may be depressed.
Of nearly 1,000 adults studied, those diagnosed with depression ate an average of 60% more chocolate (8.4 servings of chocolate versus 5.4 servings consumed per month) The most depressed ate over 100% more (11.8 servings per month) of chocolate.
What is behind the depression-chocolate connection?
It's not clear how the two are linked but experts have offered several theories. It could be that depression stimulates chocolate cravings as a form of self-treatment. Chocolate prompts the release of certain chemicals in the brain, such as dopamine, that produce feelings of pleasure.
There is no evidence, however, that chocolate has a sustained benefit on improving mood. Like alcohol, chocolate may contribute a short-term boost in mood followed by a return to depression or a worsened mood. A study published in 2007 in the journal Appetite found that eating chocolate improved mood but only for about three minutes.
It's also possible that depressed people seek chocolate to improve mood but that the trans fats in some chocolate counteract the effect of omega-3 fatty acid production in the body, the authors said in the paper. Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to improve mental health.
Another theory is that chocolate consumption contributes to depression or that some physiological mechanism, such as stress, drives both depression and chocolate cravings.
"It's unlikely that chocolate makes people depressed," said Marcia Levin Pelchat, a psychologist who studies food cravings at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. She was not involved in the new study. "Most people believe the beneficial effects of chocolate are on mood and that they are learned. You eat chocolate; it makes you feel good, and sometime when you're feeling badly it occurs to you, ‘Gee, if I eat some chocolate I might feel better.' "
Chocolate is popular in North America and Britain, she said. But in other cultures, different foods are considered pleasure-inducing pick-me-ups.
"In the United States, people consider chocolate really tasty," Pelchat said. "It has a high cultural value. It's an appropriate gift for Valentine's Day. But in China, you might give stuffed snails to someone you really like."