Great news: A recent cross-sectional study of over 13,000 U.S. adults found that people who ate dark chocolate in the prior 24 hours were 70 percent less likely to report depression.1
The benefits were not simply due to the pleasure of the taste because; the same effects were not seen with milk chocolate, although many people prefer that taste to dark chocolate. You may ask, isn't it possible that people who strive for a healthy lifestyle are more likely to consume dark chocolate? After all, most of us know that dark chocolate has been linked to the prevention of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cognitive decline, and a host of other maladies. But unlike other studies, these researchers controlled for other lifestyle factors like physical activity, smoking, alcohol, and total sugar and caloric intake, as well as age, sex, marital status, education, income, weight, and presence of chronic medical problems. In the end, the association held up.
Even better, if you are careful, there is little threat to your waist line because it did not take much dark chocolate to achieve these antidepressant effects. On average, the consumers of dark chocolate ate a little less than half an ounce per day. And the quality of the dark chocolate did not seem to matter: You don't have to buy the expensive brands that promise high percentages of cocoa. Trader Joe's will have the same effect as Godiva. The cut-off for “dark” chocolate was ≥ 45% cocoa which is much lower than the optimal dose for physical health, which is 1 to 2 ounces a day of ≥ 70% cocoa. Keeping the percentage of cocoa high and the serving size low maximizes the healthy ingredients while minimizing the calories and sugar.
What are the mechanisms that may explain the antidepressant effects of dark chocolate?
- Flavanols. Brain-protecting nutrients that are also found in red wine, berries, apples, citrus, and green and black teas, all foods associated with improvements in mood and cognition.
- Caffeine and theobromine. These deliver rapid effects on energy and cognition. Cocoa is the main source of theobromine, while caffeine is found in many foods other than coffee.
- N-acylethanolamines. This fatty acid has euphoric effects and shows promise in treating bacterial, fungal, and viral infections. It also exhibits anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and antiviral properties.
- Phenylethylamine. It increases the release of dopamine which tells the brain that whatever it just experienced is worth getting more of. Dopamine also helps with reinforcement — motivating an animal to do something again
This study relieves some of the guilt that accompanies the consumption of chocolate, particularly during depression. Even in the studies of healthy subjects, where chocolate enhanced mood, guilt was sometimes noted as an adverse effect. Chocolate is one of life’s pleasures, and pleasant feelings help pave the way out of depression.
1. Chris Aiken, MD, Psychiatric Times, September 5, 2019, Volume: 36, Issue: 11. https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/depression/dark-chocolate-depression