Attention Chocoholics: You May Be Depressed

New research finds chocolate is a big draw when we're down, but why?

Are you one of those people who eat chocolate just about every day? Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but a new study in this week’s Archives of Internal Medicine says that the more chocolate you consume, the more depressed you are likely to be.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego studied nearly 1,000 people who were not on antidepressants, and found that people with symptoms of depression ate 8.4 servings of chocolate per month, compared to 5.4 servings for people who didn’t show signs. Those who ranked even higher on the depression scale, signaling possible major depression, ate almost 12 servings of chocolate per month.

Anyone who is an emotional eater is probably thinking, well, sure, when has stress-fueled snacking ever included a bag of fresh spinach? Bad moods, from stress to sadness to PMS, often lead directly to the junk food aisle. Do not pass the gym; do not eat a salad; do not collect any healthy or redeeming habits. What researchers found interesting is that depressed people did not eat any more carbohydrates or fatty foods than happier people—though stress often triggers those kinds of food choices. The only food participants seemed to be self-medicating with was chocolate. And it’s not just a girl thing--men were just as likely to indulge as women.

The question everyone wants an answer to, then, is: Does chocolate worsen depression or are people using it to help themselves feel better? We still don’t know. This particular study did not examine why depressed people eat more cacao; however, past studies reveal conflicting results. A 2006 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that chocolate can actually perpetuate a gloomy mood. Other studies have found that any food that tastes good can momentarily boost feel-good chemicals in the brain, leading to a short-lived uptick in spirits. Still others have found that chocolate may reduce levels of stress hormones in chronically frazzled people.

While I do, admittedly, eat my fair share of dark chocolate, I tend to think that’s because it’s the least guilt-ridden food I can find to satisfy my sweet tooth, not a barometer for depression. But who knows? Maybe it is a subconscious way to alleviate my bad moods. Either way, it's never given me a palpable lift. I just like it. Of course, there could be something going on chemically in my brain that I just don’t notice. There are so many emotions wrapped up in eating anything loaded with fat and calories that guilt tends to be the predominating feeling that crops up with each bite. And that, I can safely say, is not great for boosting your mood or self-esteem.

Working out does a better job of boosting my mood. For me, exercise is kind of like sex. After a good workout, I often—but not always—feel giddy and exhilarated. Still, no matter how good an exercise session makes me feel, I often have a hard time motivating myself to hit the gym. Reaching for a piece of chocolate, on the other hand, is never a problem. Now that I find kind of depressing.

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