The Science Behind How Chocolate Affects Your Mood
  • February 17, 2018
  • Ah, love is in the air, and now that February 14th has officially passed, all the whimsical heart-shaped chocolates are half priced. Chocolate lovers, regardless of whether Cupid’s arrow struck them, will surely swoon!

    All this hub-bub about chocolate has me wondering how chocolate affects your mood. If you ask my toddler, he “ne ne ka-lá mama!” Which roughly translates to, “I need (emphasis on need) chocolate Mom!”

    So to him and many other chocolate lovers, the decadent sweet (once reserved for nobility and which legend says to be a gift from the gods) is right up there with air, water, food, shelter, and other essentials for human life. There is certainly enough chocolate propaganda (or dare I say, “chocoganda”) out there to have everyone believing chocolate is in fact a blessing from up above sent to lift our moods.

    How chocolate affects your mood and recipe for low-sugar chocolate-covered strawberries

    A small group of studies indicate there may be truth to the folklore after all! One study asked volunteers to watch a movie intended to evoke feelings of sadness, happiness, or no particular feelings. Prior to the film, viewers rated their mood. Half of the viewers were asked to pick a chocolate of choice weighing 5 grams (approximately the size of a Hershey’s Kiss) while the others received only water. They were then asked about their mood following the movie. Eating chocolate improved their mood after watching the sad movie, but had no effect on mood after the other two movies.

    When the same experiment was done with a tasty chocolate choice compared to an un-tasty choice, only the tasty chocolate was able to elevate mood. So it seems that our enjoyment of chocolate (and its overall quality and taste) is very important in whether or not it will improve our mood. (Keep in mind, however, that the increase in mood only lasted a few minutes.)

    Furthermore, mindfully eating chocolate has been shown to increase mood over eating chocolate without mindfulness. This means chocolate is best for boosting mood when you really savor it. Try looking it over before you eat it and really take a moment to take it all in- how it feels in your mouth, what it tastes like, how the taste changes as it dissolves in your mouth. This will create an entirely different experience than popping a few M&M’s while driving away from the gas station in rush hour traffic.

    It is possible that improved mood could just be a result of having a sweet treat. People are known to seek out foods higher in carbohydrates, like candy, when stressed. It could be an unknowing attempt to self-medicate as eating carbohydrates can also help the body produce endorphins like serotonin, an important hormone for mood regulation.

    The same group of chocolate researchers once again had a group of volunteers watch a movie intended to conjure up specific feelings. This time they gave them either a chocolate bar or an apple. Both snacks improved mood, but chocolate seemed to be more effective.

    Given this information I may consider sitting down with a chocolate treat the next time I watch This is Us. It won’t bring Jack back, but maybe I’ll be able to keep from ugly crying my way through the entire episode. Check out my healthy-hack of chocolate-covered strawberries below.

    Lightly Sweetened Chocolate-Covered Strawberries

    Serves 1-2

    What You Need:

    • 1-2 tablespoons low sugar (<10 g per serving) chocolate hazelnut butter
    • 1 tablespoon mix of chia seeds and hemp seeds (the exact measurement is not necessary)
    • Fresh strawberries (or bananas!)
    • A little milk or milk alternative that you can add if the mixture becomes too thick

    What To Do:

    Mix seeds with chocolate hazelnut butter. Add in a little milk at a time if it’s too thick (add in some more nut butter and/or seeds if you overdid it on the milk). Lick your spoon and spread over fresh strawberries or bananas.

    About Kristin Hoddy

    Kristin Hoddy PhD RDN is a nutrition researcher and private practice dietitian living in the Chicago area. She has 10 years of working experience in the health and fitness industry, and currently she is a postdoctoral fellow. Kristin is passionate advocate for science communication and aims to help people find “their healthy” by making cutting edge research easier to understand. She enjoys sharing what she learns researching nutrition as a writer and as a private practice dietitian. Feel free to reach out to Kristin @KristinHoddyPhD for nutritional counseling or writing inquiries.