Food & Diet

Why Do We Turn to Chocolate When We Feel Depressed?

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It is no secret that most of us eat candy when we feel bad, especially chocolate. It is the most common and favorite comfort food and it really does make us feel better for a while. But why is it so?

Chocolate smells and tastes good, but that is not the only reason we turn to it. When we eat chocolate, as Dr. Amy Jo Stavnezer, a professor of neuroscience and psychology puts it, all of the good feelings we experience happen because of the chemicals our brain releases. Those chemicals are neurotransmitters such as dopamine, and are released when we have a pleasant experience (e.g. success at work, or spending a nice time with your loved ones). Our brain learns what gives us that sense of happiness and pleasure and craves it. For many people, chocolate is the primary ‘pleasure-maker’.

So why does dopamine draw us to certain things, in this case chocolate?

Dopamine, according to professor Stavnezer, helps us remember positive experiences and the more often you eat chocolate the stronger the habit of eating it becomes, which means that dopamine response becomes stronger as well. This only makes the cravings more intense, because we want to experience those good feelings again and again.

Moreover, movies, TV shows and Valentine’s Day promoters have presented chocolate, candy, and all kinds of sugary foods as the best comfort food and way of dealing with break ups, and other heart aches. It is no wonder that many people turn to it when they want to treat their depression, or at least instantly relieve its symptoms and the horrible feelings that follow it. According to a study published in the JAMA Internal Medicine (formerly Archives of Internal Medicine) in April 2010, depressed persons ate around 55% more chocolate than the respondents who were not suffering from depression. The amount of chocolate eaten rises with the severity of depression. The fact is that people tend to take chocolate when they are feeling depressed because they want to feel a little happiness, experience some pleasure, even if for a short while. The author of this study and a professor of medicine at the University of California, Beatrice Golomb, along with her colleagues examined around 900 people and looked at their weekly chocolate intake as well as their general eating habits. The study showed that those who were mildly depressed ate more chocolate servings per month (8.4) than those who weren’t (5.4), while those who were very depressed ate a significantly larger amount than both of the previously mentioned groups (12). Both men and women reach for this sugary pleasure in their hard times.

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We eat more chocolate because we are depressed, or the other way around?

However, the link between chocolate and depression isn’t exactly clear – scientists are unsure whether people reach out for chocolate when they are depressed, or chocolate is what contributes to their depression. Golomb and her colleagues agree that in some cases chocolate may improve a person’s mood and serve as a comfort food, but it can go the other way around as well, making the chocolate eaters feel good for a short period of time, leading to a quick mood improvement, which later suddenly drops and makes the person feel even worse than before eating it. This is particularly the case when the chocolate you eat is packed with unhealthy ingredients.

Like alcohol or some drugs and antidepressants, chocolate can lead to a quick improvement of your mood and then cause a sudden drop, which may make your depression even worse than before, as a psychologist and Golomb’s colleague, Susan Albers explains.

This craving for chocolate can also appear when we overwork our brain, according to professor Stavnezer, causing it to need more energy and it knows it can get that energy from a high caloric food, such as chocolate, which will at the same time provide some pleasure as well.

So what can we do about these cravings?

We don’t want to overeat on candy each time we feel depressed, do we? One solution is to preplan everything we are going to eat throughout the day (but that would be a bit tedious). Another is to give each food choice some thinking time and use some common sense when picking the food we are going to eat. It is important to remember that eating chocolate is a quick fix and it won’t make us feel better in the long run.

To improve our mood on a general basis, and make a sustainable change, turning to healthy habits is the best option. These habits include eating healthy nutritious foods, exercising regularly, socializing, meditating often, and enjoying the little things in life. If none of these suggestions seem to work for you, maybe it would be best to consult a psychologist or a psychotherapist and ask for help.

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