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Dr. Nicholas Perricone Headshot

How Sweet It Is: Good News About Chocolate and Cocoa

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The secret to living a long and healthy life is not all about self-denial, self-discipline and austerity. While it is true that we do need to exercise some self-control and make smart decisions when it comes to our diet, there are some treats that we can enjoy while reaping healthy benefits.

I am happy to report that one of life's greatest pleasures is actually rich in heart-healthy antioxidants. A number of scientific studies have found that extra dark chocolate, containing 80 percent cocoa solids or more, is uniquely high in potent, heart-healthy flavon-3-ol antioxidants. Polyphenols identified in the cocoa bean include several different catechins, as well as procyanins, anthocyanins, and flavone and flavonol glycosides. In fact, cocoa contains double the flavon-3-ol anti-oxidant content of red wine, and five times that of green tea.

Sweet Smarts

These antioxidants are extremely protective not only to the heart but also to the brain, (both cardio and neuro-protective). Recent studies looking at the protection of neuros in vitro, found that they were more protective than other antioxidant in preserving brain cells.

Mood Food

Chocolate is also a source of several mood-elevating constituents, including tryptophan (precursor to serotonin), anandamide (a natural brain chemical very similar to the cannabinoids in marijuana), theobromine (far milder cousin to caffeine), phenylethylamine and magnesium. While the amounts of each of these potentially mood-elevating appear too small to affect most people's mood significantly, the combination can and does produce feelings of elation, even ecstasy, in some sensitive individuals.

Cocoa butter is a heart-healthy fat that does not raise cholesterol levels. It actually contains a variety of healthy fatty acids, including stearic Acid (35%), oleic acid (Omega-9) 35%), palmitic acid (25%), and Linoleic Acid ((Omega-6) 3%). Oleic acid is also found in extra virgin olive oil and may actually raise the levels of good HDL fats in the blood.

The antioxidants in cocoa can also help improve immune function and reduce the inflammation of blood vessels. Other benefits of chocolate include:

• Potentially lowers levels of LDL or "bad" cholesterol
• Decreases platelet "clumping" in our blood vessels
• Regulates immune response
• High levels of phenolics -- powerful antioxidants that fight the cell damage that leads to chronic conditions such as cancer and heart diseases
• When combined with the right amounts of sugar (i.e., very little) and (good) fat, chocolate boosts levels of endorphins and serotonin - the brain's "feel-good" chemicals
• Dark chocolate contains high levels of chromium, a substance that has been proven to control blood sugar

The darker the chocolate, the greater the cocoa content and thus, the higher the health-promoting flavonoid content. Milk chocolate does not have the same benefits, as the chocolate is adulterated with dairy and other ingredients.

Pure unsweetened cocoa powder is the finest way to enjoy the benefits of chocolate. Sprinkle it on yogurt and/or berries, and try Mexican mole sauces for a delightful way to enjoy chocolate during the main course.

Look for high quality chocolates with their main ingredients being cocoa butter and cocoa solids. These include Lindt and Ecco Bello. Lindt Excellence offers an 85% cocoa dark chocolate bar, one serving (2/5 of a bar) has 8 grams of carbohydrate, 4 grams of protein, and 3 grams of fiber. Ecco Bella makes an organic dark chocolate bar with cranberry seed oil for omega-3 fatty acids, plus blueberry extract, and the powerful antioxidants, lutein, lycopene, and astaxanthin. My personal favorite is Vital Choice's organic extra dark chocolate www.vitalchoice.com, which are crafted from the best raw, non-Dutched cocoa for superior antioxidants and flavor. Their raw-cocoa chocolate retains the potent antioxidants that are missing in most brands. Enjoy this 80% organic extra dark chocolate plain, or with organic hazelnuts or wild-crafted blueberries.

As long as we choose the right form of chocolate and enjoy it in moderation (one to two ounces per day), there is no reason why we must give up this aptly named "food of the Gods." But, remember, if on a weight loss program we may want to limit our indulgence to once or twice a week until we have achieved our desired results.

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