A friend of mine looked at this article headline and said, “Uhm – is that really a valid question? Isn’t chocolate like breathing? A requirement for survival?”
While some folks’ attitude about chocolate is an ambivalent take-it-or-leave-it, others crave and dream (literally) about the delectable flavor, soothing consistency and calming feeling they get from eating chocolate.
The good news is that high-quality chocolate likely can offer a host of health benefits. But is that the case for your unique body?
Though it contains many other beneficial nutrients, chocolate’s “superfood” status is earned mostly due to the effects of two key components: flavonols and theobromine.
Half of the cocoa bean is made of fat in the form of cocoa butter. Cocoa powder is the edible non-fat part of the cacao bean, and cocoa has one of the highest antioxidant concentrations (ORAC) of any food, rating higher than most foods, including antioxidant powerhouses like green tea, blueberries and red wine.
Much like the most beneficial ingredients in coffee, flavonols are believed to be the most potent anti-inflammatory agent found in cocoa.
- Flavonols have clearly been shown to be largely responsible for chocolate’s ability to increase protective HDL cholesterol with regular intake (and actually also improve another critical lipid ratio called ApoA/ApoB that is a marker for cardiovascular disease risk).
- Studies have shown that dark chocolate can moderately decrease blood pressure as well. This function may be attributed to cocoa’s action as a renin-angiotension enzyme inhibitor, the same mechanism addressed by some blood pressure medications.
- Indeed, the relaxing aura you may feel when you eat chocolate is not your imagination. A similar study showed that chocolate reduced the perceived negative effects of stress (by reducing cortisol and epinephrine), especially in females.
Again, these benefits are attributed to the cocoa phenols (in this case flavonols) that are present in the dark cocoa powder from the cocoa bean.
White chocolate showed no benefits in these studies, and the darker the chocolate (meaning more cacao and less fillers e.g. sugar), the more health benefits.
Indeed, chocolate with high (vs. low) flavonol content has been clearly demonstrated to improve cognitive function in the elderly as well (in part by reducing insulin resistance in neurons – fascinating, huh!?).
This is a good example of how quality matters. Processing (such as the “dutching” done to many cocoa powders) can significantly reduce the flavonol content. A great way to maximize flavonols is to consume the roasted cocoa nibs themselves (e.g. in a smoothie, as they are quite bitter otherwise) or use raw cacao powder (try this week’s recipe – a long-time reader favorite) or choose a chocolate bar that includes actual nibs for extra crunch.
In chocolate bars, I highly recommend you choose chocolate that contains 70% cacoa or higher. Unfortunately, most American “chocolate” bars and candies are little more than chocolate-flavored sugar bars. For example, a Three Musketeers bar is estimated to contain less than 5% actual chocolate. By choosing high-quality, minimally-processed, high-cacao-content chocolate foods, you can enjoy a little sweetness each day – healthfully.
Some of my personal favorite brands include Fearless, Dagoba, and the Trader Joe’s 73% cacao “super dark” store brand bar. For raw cacao powder, try online at Amazon where you can often find 1 lb bags at a great price.
If you are drawn to chocolate for the “kick” you get in return, you can thank theobromine, the primary stimulant found in chocolate.
Generally, research shows that low or moderate intake of theobromine yields positive cognitive effects (such as better mood, increased concentration), while higher intake is regarded as negative. But as with many other stimulants, theobromine also causes a dose-dependent increase in heart rate. So a little bit goes a long way.
Realize too that some people are strongly sensitive to theobromine, giving them an unsettled “over caffeinated” feeling with even small doses. Remember that theobromine and caffeine are two different stimulants, and well tolerating one does not mean the same will be true for the other.
We’ve had a few clients discover chocolate to be a major trigger (or exacerbating factor) for their anxiety. Several of our clients discover that their after-dinner chocolate square (yes, even one) disrupts their sleep. In a few cases, even mid-day chocolate is an issue.
As is true of many foods, chocolate can affect appetite and cravings. For some, savoring a little chocolate helps to head off a craving for larger, heavier desserts. However, we have had some clients who, once they started eating chocolate, had a hard time controlling themselves. Unable to slowly enjoy just a piece or two, they ended up devouring an entire bar every time they tried to enjoy just a bit. Feeling out of control – or inviting a binge – can just increase anxiety and feelings of guilt or frustration afterward. In some of these cases, people find it feels better simply not to indulge.
If you struggle with over-consumption, I recommend breaking off just a few pieces (put the rest of the bar away). Go sit down in a comfy place. Then, instead of gobbling them quickly, let each chocolate square melt in your mouth – one at a time, slowly. Take your time in savoring the creamy texture and rich flavor. Whether you get 15 seconds or 5 minutes of enjoyment out of your chocolate is about eating it on purpose. For extended pleasure.
So what’s your personal answer to the question? Chocolate: Yes or No? How does it make YOU feel? Can you limit yourself to a few squares a day? Does chocolate make you feel a little jittery? Are you able to enjoy high cacao-content chocolate (70% or higher) that will keep your sugar intake low and your flavonol intake high? Does eating something sweet on a daily basis simply make you crave it more and derail your efforts to eat on purpose?
Need some delicious help with improving your cardiovascular health? Perhaps chocolate is an ideal addition to your diet. Consider trying 1 ounce daily (typically about 3 small squares of a typical dark chocolate bar) for the next four weeks and conduct your own personal trial.
Enjoy the process of experimenting and exploring what Eating on Purpose means to You.
by:Tracy Harrison (www.SchoolAFM.com)