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Health Benefits of Chocolate

An ounce of chocolate a day may keep the doctor away.

By
Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N,
Episode #030

A hundred and fifty years ago, some clever chocolatier came up with the idea of packing chocolates in heart-shaped boxes for Valentine’s Day. The idea caught on and February 14th has been associated with chocolate ever since. And now, scientists are telling us that chocolate may be as good for your heart health as it is for your love life.

What do spinach, sardines, oat bran, and dark chocolate have in common? They’re all touted as ways to make your heart healthier. Funny how most people find it easier to eat more chocolate than to eat more sardines.

Well, we do what we can. And, the truth is, chocolate really does have some good stuff in it. Studies have found that eating chocolate can lower your blood pressure and your cholesterol, which of course is good for your heart health. But that’s not all.

Compounds in chocolate can increase your insulin sensitivity, which improves your body’s ability to regulate your blood sugar and can help prevent Type 2 diabetes. They also improve blood flow to the brain, which can make you smarter … or at least help you hang onto the smarts you have, as you get older.

Montezuma’s Secret

Chocolate also helps reduce inflammation, which helps prevent all kinds of diseases and just generally slows down the aging process. Not for nothing did Montezuma drink a dozen cups of cocoa to bolster his stamina before visiting his harem!

I even came across some research showing that eating chocolate on a regular basis can improve the texture and structure of your skin! And if all of that weren’t enough, chocolate contains compounds that make you feel happier … but you didn’t need researchers to tell you that, did you?

Most of the health benefits of chocolate are provided by compounds called flavanols, which are found in the nonfat cocoa solids—that’s the part of the bean left over when you take out all the cocoa butter. Dark chocolate generally contains a lot more cocoa solids than milk chocolate, which is why—as a general rule—dark chocolate is considered to be healthier: you’re getting a more concentrated dose of flavanols.

I say “as a general rule” because the amount of cocoa solids isn’t a perfect way to judge the flavanol content. Processing can destroy flavanols and the type of cocoa bean and the region in which it was grown also make a difference. I recently did a blog post on the kinds of chocolate that are highest in flavanols you can find here if you’d like to delve into the details. Still, most dark chocolate will have a decent amount of these beneficial compounds.

Is there any downside to chocolate?

However, this is not license to start eating a pound of dark chocolate a day. In addition to all those healthy flavanols, chocolate also generally contains a good amount of sugar, fat, and calories. For all its benefits, chocolate—even dark chocolate—is a healthy food that you need to enjoy in moderation.

Researchers estimate that eating just an ounce of dark chocolate every day is enough to get some positive benefit. That much dark chocolate will run you somewhere around 200 calories. If you simply add an extra 200 calories a day to your diet, you’ll end up gaining weight at the rate of about two pounds a month!

So, if you want to eat an ounce of chocolate every day (for medicinal purposes only, of course) you’ll want to cut something else out, such as that second glass of wine with dinner or the scoop of frozen yogurt afterward. After all, gaining 10 pounds will quickly undo any health benefits you might be getting from chocolate.

Chocolate Is Not Just For Dessert

Or, dig out that can of unsweetened cocoa powder in the back of the cupboard instead. Cocoa powder is low in calories, contains no sugar, and is virtually fat-free. Because it is close to 100% cacao solids, it’s jam packed with flavanols. Try blending a tablespoon of cocoa powder with some soymilk and a frozen banana for a healthy smoothie.

You can also use cocoa powder in savory dishes! Although it might seem strange if you’ve never had it before, chocolate and chili peppers are a classic combination in Mexican cuisine. Add a few tablespoons of cocoa powder to a batch of chili and you’ll see why. Cocoa powder mixed with ground chilis and other spices makes a fabulous dry rub for steak or pork chops. Just be sure to avoid “dutched” or alkalized cocoa powder, which has less than half the flavanol content of regular cocoa powder.

By the way, if you have trouble remembering the differences between “cocoa,” “cacao,” “cocoa solids,” “cocoa mass,” and “cocoa powder,” you’re not alone. I can never keep them straight and it doesn’t help that they’re not always used the same way. I came across a good explanation of these terms and how they’re commonly used on a chocolate website; I’ll include a link in the show notes.

For more, please refer to my Quick Tips on getting more nutrition from chocolate and whether or not milk affects the health benefits of chocolate.

Administrative

This is Monica Reinagel, the Nutrition Diva, with your quick and dirty tips for eating well and feeling fabulous.

If you have a nutrition question for me, send an e-mail to nutrition@quickanddirtytips.com or leave me a voice mail at 206-203-1438.  You can also get your questions in on Facebook or Twitter.

Have a great day and eat something good for me!

RESOURCES:

Choosing the best chocolate for your heart

COCOA FLAVANOLS: A Snapshot of the Science

Cocoa vs. Cacao: Chocolate Terms Defined

 

About the Author

Monica Reinagel, M.S.,L.D./N
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