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To Eat or Not to Eat: How good is chocolate for us?
Most of us have experienced it… that brief moment of bliss and satisfaction that takes over us when a piece of chocolate slowly melts in our mouth. Nowadays, there is a billion dollars’ worth industry built to curb our chocolate cravings: Ferrero Rocher, Ghirardelli , Cadbury, and Lindt are just some of the popular names that come to mind. While it is the sweet chocolatey taste and creamy texture that has largely contributed to its popularity, there has lately been a surge in research on the health benefits of eating chocolate.
Good for the heart
A study in Norfolk, England that was conducted on older adults who ate up to 3.5 ounces of chocolate a day for 11 years found that those who ate chocolate regularly had lower rates of heart disease than those who didn’t. While there may be other factors that could have affected the results, there is some truth in the association between eating chocolate and heart health.
According to research, the key healthy component of cocoa or cacao (the beans that chocolate is made from) is a compound known as flavonoids which lower the risk for coronary heart disease. More specifically, flavonoids reduce blood pressure, improve platelet function, increase HDL cholesterol, as well as increase insulin sensitivity, all of which are important for proper heart function.
(Somewhat) good for the brain
There are a myriad of other compounds found in chocolate which also impact our brain. One of these types of compounds is methylxanthines which includes stimulants like caffeine and theobromine. The methylxanthines together with biogenic amines improve mood, alertness, mental functioning, as well as our ability to cope with stress. It is important to keep a healthy balance of these compounds in our body as a deficit can even contribute to depression. Other benefits of chocolate include the release of endorphins, “feel-good” chemicals, as well as an increase in blood flow to the brain.
While the benefits above are heartening, there are also a few downsides that merit a discussion. In addition to the sugar and fat levels in chocolate which can be a matter of concern, chocolate is shown to have drug-like effects. The manner in which the compounds above affect mood and cognition are quite similar to that of some drugs. In fact, chocolate contains alkaloids also found in alcohol and seems to contribute to certain changes in the brain associated with addiction.
If you want to take advantage of chocolate’s health benefits, go for the darker options.
There is a reason why most health gurus encourage dark chocolate over other options. Most of the health benefits of chocolate can be attributed to flavonoids, which are much more abundant in dark chocolate than milk chocolate and completely absent in white chocolate. Milk and white chocolate may also have more cocoa butter than cocoa powder and significantly more sugar, making it an even less healthy option.
So, what’s the verdict? Too much of anything is never a good idea. Eat chocolate in moderation and choose the darker options over the lighter ones when you can. At least now you can enjoy that piece of chocolate without feeling too guilty afterwards.
Afoakwa, E. O. (2008). Cocoa and chocolate consumption–Are there aphrodisiac and other benefits for human health? South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 21, 107-113.
In the journals: Cocoa reduces inflammation associated with heart disease (2010). Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved from www.health.harvard.edu
Morris, K., & Taren, D. (2005). Eating Your Way to Happiness: Chocolate, Brain Metabolism, and Mood. Karger Gazette, 68. Retrieved from www.misc.karger.com
Sweet dreams: eating chocolate prevents heart disease (2015). Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved from www.health.harvard.edu
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