It might not be much of a surprise when we read about how eating broccoli can lower the risk of certain cancers, or how loaded with antioxidants fruits and vegetables are. It seems that virtually every day we see a report of a newly-discovered health benefit of a fruit or vegetable. We can almost expect foods we know we "should be eating" to eventually produce some research that will show remarkable properties. What a pleasant surprise that we can add the often-forbidden-yet-highly-desired chocolate to that list of healthy plant-based foods. Now there is a way to enjoy chocolate without guilt--and know that it can have a favorable effect on your health!
I've long enjoyed dark chocolate as a treat; now it's an extra bonus to eat a piece and know of its fascinating health-promoting properties. I especially enjoy helping to reduce the guilt-ridden looks on my patients' faces when they confess giving into their chocolate cravings. I try to absolve them of their guilt by citing the latest research and sharing with them how chocolate can be part of a healthy eating plan.
Most of you probably don't need an excuse to enjoy fine chocolate, but just in case you do, here are some healthy reasons to indulge yourself a little:
1. High in antioxidants: Chocolate is high in flavonoids, an antioxidant in the polyphenol category. Antioxidants can help to prevent cell damage and have been linked to prevention of cancer and other degenerative diseases.
2. Helps with cholesterol: Scientists at Penn State found that dark chocolate and flavonoid-rich cocoa powder reduced LDL ("bad" cholesterol) oxidation.
3. Reduces inflammation: An Italian study showed that when volunteers ingested small amounts of dark chocolate, their levels of C-reactive protein (an inflammatory marker) decreased.
4. Lowers blood pressure: A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that dark chocolate had an effect on lowering blood pressure.
5. Helps with mood: Chocolate contains tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin, which can help with depression. Research also shows chocolate can increase dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Chocolate also contains phenylethylamine (PEA) known as the "love chemical."
6. Improves blood flow: Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has shown that cocoa has anti-clotting, blood-thinning properties that work in a similar way as aspirin. Nobody is suggesting to replace your aspirin with chocolate, but the research is compelling.
7. It's delicious! Research shows that enjoying food and life is beneficial for your health.
So, does one enjoy the health benefits of chocolate with a steady diet of Snickers and Milky Way?
Hardly. It seems that the health benefits of chocolate come in packages that don't include nougat, caramel, or high amounts of sugar.
Most studies were done using cocoa powder or dark chocolate. Experts suggest that adding small amounts (a one ounce piece a few times a week) of dark chocolate to a healthy diet that includes antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables will give you a variety of phytochemicals (beneficial elements of plants) that have proven health benefits.
Thanks to all of those scientists and the volunteers who allowed themselves to be the subjects for chocolate research so we could learn to enjoy this guilty pleasure with a little less guilt. I hope you had all had fun doing it. I can't think of a better research study to participate in!
As I was preparing this blog, I stopped by one of my favorite places in Santa Monica for some homemade, raw, dark, organic chocolate: Zenbunni Chocolates and Curiosities. Within a few minutes of ingestion of this delicious treat, I felt an increased sense of mental clarity, heightened awareness, and mood elevation. One could attribute this to the caffeine and sugar, but this particular bar was low in sugar (only 4 grams) and did not result in the jitteriness that I usually feel if I have caffeine. I'm hoping that my body was enjoying the flavonoids, polyphenols, and other nutrients that nature has provided in such a tasty package.
Readers: How has chocolate impacted your life and/or your health? Any favorite brands, recipes, or tips for fellow chocolate lovers?