It doesn’t take much to be a chocoholic. Cocoa beans have always been prized and savored, across radically different cultures and times. Even the Aztecs valued cocoa beans so highly, they used them as currency. And in Europe all the way up until the Industrial Revolution, chocolate was reserved solely for the use of the nobility. When people get their hands on chocolate, they know that what they’ve got is good.
As it turns out, chocolate is “good” in more ways than one. The delights of its flavor and varieties are subject enough for another day, but let’s focus in on something a little less obvious: chocolate can be good for your health.
But Not Just Any Chocolate
When it comes to picking through the newest findings in healthy living tips, it’s only natural that some ideas appeal more than others. You might pay more attention to that study on the benefits of a glass of red wine at the end of the day than you do your doctor’s advice that you start exercising. You might find it easier to take up meditation than you do strength training. And the single nutritional tip that probably gets shared the most gleefully by health and wellness nerds?
That chocolate can be GOOD for you!
However, this is not a carte blanche to gorge on candy bars. The best kind of chocolate—the kind that offers the biggest health benefits—is dark chocolate, preferably containing 70% cocoa. This is quite bitter and not what most people think of when they crave chocolate.
The health benefits of chocolate may not be apparent to everyone at first glance. Part of what makes chocolate (at least in most processed, dessert-like forms) so delicious are the sweeteners and ingredients that make one product differ from the next (think of extra whipped cream on your hot cocoa, or the gooey caramel in your assorted truffles). And, as you could probably guess, the more you add to the flavor, the more you lose in terms of benefits to your health. Chocolate often leads people to think of calories and fat and “junk food.” Though all of this can be true of some chocolate consumed in some patterns, when it comes down to it there’s simply more to the story.
Chocolate is for Savoring!
Before we get into the specifics of what chocolate can do for your overall health and wellness, it’s important that we make something very clear. When studies talk about chocolate being “good for your heart” or “good for your brain,” you can be sure that the researchers did not allow study participants to nosh uncontrollably on candy covered sweets or to finish every meal with two pieces of chocolate cheesecake. The key to allowing your body to benefit from what chocolate has to offer is to enjoy it in moderation. You might even call it a step beyond that, depending on how much chocolate you’re accustomed to enjoying. The best habit to aim for is a bit (read: a couple squares, not a full bar) of dark chocolate just two to three times per week.
Every true chocolate-lover has his or her favorite treat at the ready. If not on hand, then certainly in mind were the question asked. Do you prefer your chocolate in thick milkshakes or cups of pudding? Would you rather eat a big bag of cheap Halloween candy, or an overpriced Swiss truffle? Whatever you think you know about your favorite chocolate, take a moment to reconsider.
If “chocolate” to you means guiltily eating a King-Size bar in the parking garage at work, the negative effects of this habit will counteract the positive. Most commercially available chocolate treats are not “dark” or cocoa chocolate: they are “milk” chocolate which is more sugar than anything else. These kinds of treats are designed to make you eat more than you need and at the wrong time for your body to handle. But if you could be open to changing the way you think about chocolate—that means changing both the kind chocolate that you eat and the way you approach it—you could get to a place in which chocolate isn’t accompanied by a wave of guilt but a feeling of pride and accomplishment and progress towards a healthier life. And shouldn’t chocolate always be accompanied by that kind of joy?
If you’re on the market for the kind of chocolate that could better your health, here are a few tips to keep in mind at the grocery store:
- No added fats: chocolate beans already contain cocoa butter, which is a natural provider of fat and…well…deliciousness. No need for anything more!
- Organic sources: This goes for anything that grows, including cocoa beans. Farms rely on harmful pesticides and herbicides more often than not. To protect yourself from these, just limit your selections to the organic options (of which there are plenty!).
- High percentage of cocoa: Bars of chocolate will sometimes list what percentage of the product is actually made up of cocoa. The higher the percentage, the healthier…and the bitterer. 70% is considered ideal, but you may have to work your way up to this little by little if you come from a strictly milk chocolate background.
- Healthy sweeteners: Sweeteners are what you want to look out for. Instead of fructose, refined sugar, or artificial substitutes, try for natural, quality sweeteners. A few good options to look out for are coconut sugar or nectar, monk fruit, Stevia, organic whole cane juice, inulin (chicory root), or xylitol.
- Moderation: If there’s one idea that stays with you from this article, let it be moderation. Chocolate has so much to offer in terms of wellness, but you can’t let that whitewash the fact that it is still a dense treat that is high in fat and sugar. Try to frame it as a treat, and act accordingly.
Chocolate Is Good for Your Heart
According to several recent studies, keeping up a controlled, careful intake of weekly dark chocolate can reduce the risk of developing heart disease in the long-term. Maintaining a habit of dark chocolate 2-3 times a week was found to potentially lower high blood pressure, which could reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (ASVD) and improve blood flow to the heart. It could also reduce the risk of developing a blood clot, which is certainly reason enough for most of us chocolate lovers to commit to those 2-3 times of weekly chocolate consumption. After all, anything for our health!
A Good Head on Your Shoulders
According to another recent study, cocoa has been found to improve cognitive function and reduce high blood pressure in elderly patients with symptoms of MCI or mild cognitive impairment due to flavanol, a component found in natural cocoa. Some studies have even suggested using cocoa as a complementary component in the treatment strategy for patients showing signs of dementia.
Throw in studies that see benefits in improving both mood and memory in animals and humans, and you can see the advantages of starting off a little cocoa treatment regime. Why wait for the problems when you can start early and reap the benefits now? No doctor’s prescription required!
Another interesting benefit: Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), a chemical similar to that which your brain produces when a person falls in love. This may increase the rate of endorphins released, which allow you to feel happier in your day-to-day life. What’s not to like?
If chocolate weren’t good enough to the brain, it also improves the health of brain cells by increasing blood flow to the brain. This reduces the risk of stroke, all through a carefully-maintained regime of keeping up your favorite after-dinner treat.
Chocolate and the Blood
Dark chocolate—the only kind of chocolate you should be making a serious effort to incorporate into your diet for health reasons—contains flavonoids. These help your body to effectively use insulin, which in turn keeps you from developing high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes (the kind a person isn’t born with). Chocolate improves your circulation and blood vessels, and its low glycemic index means that eating chocolate (in moderation!) won’t lead to spikes in blood sugar or fats.
Rich in Flavor, Rich in Phytonutrients
If you haven’t heard of phytonutrients, they’re natural chemicals found in dark chocolate that can benefit the body in several different ways. Their antioxidant properties can combat the effects of free radicals. Their anti-inflammatory properties are valued for their ability to strengthen the body’s cells and tissues. If you keep in mind that obesity is an inflammatory condition, it follows that these compounds are able to help with maintaining a healthy weight as well.
Dark chocolate is certainly not lacking in phytonutrients, and this advantage can help your body fight against negative processes such as weight gain and age-related disorders.
Phytonutrients aren’t the last of it, not by a long shot. Dark chocolate is like a delicious, chewable version of your daily multivitamin, only with a different kind of negative outcome if you were to eat too much of it. Dark chocolate is a source of copper, iron, potassium, and magnesium. Copper and magnesium can help bring down your risk of stroke or cardiovascular disease. Iron keeps your body from developing anemia. Magnesium can reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Adding “eat daily allotted chocolate” may just be the easiest thing you’ve ever added to your menu planner. It’s certainly one of the most pleasurable wellness hacks for most people, and the easiest to get used to! Just make sure that you keep your eye on what’s important. Avoid dark chocolate and you’re missing out. Eat too much and you’re letting the negative effects of that choice overrun any good you could have done. Get it just right, though, and this will be one healthy habit that’s a real treat.