Chocolate's appeal is nearly universal. Once considered the "food of the gods," it is now being studied for its mostly positive metabolic effects in the body. Does this mean that chocolate is health food? Not quite, or at least not completely. However, new research suggests that chocolate may indeed have its upside and its downside.
A study presented at the March meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA) in Atlanta suggests the antioxidant phytonutrients in chocolate may act as insulin sensitizers and therefore be linked to reduced fat deposition and lower body weight.
People who eat chocolate more frequently have lower body mass index despite not eating fewer calories, nor exercising more.
Beatrice A. Golomb, MD, PhD and colleagues from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine studied nearly 1,000 adult men and women who did not have diabetes or any known coronary heart disease. Height and weight were measured and BMI was calculated. The participants were questioned about the frequency of their chocolate consumption.
While eating chocolate more frequently (on a weekly basis, not a daily basis) shows a favorable association to BMI, increasing the amount of chocolate eaten at one time is not linked to a more favorable BMI, according to Dr. Golomb.
But before you reach for a candy bar you need to consider that study has not yet been published in a journal, so it has not yet been subject to peer review. Furthermore, according to Dr. Golomb, "Our findings... can’t really be used to make recommendations." So the amount of chocolate needed to reap the benefits has yet to be determined.
Golomb and colleagues also presented research at the AHA conference suggesting that chocolate consumption was related to aggressive behavior. "We had previously found that there was a link between depression and more chocolate consumption. We found a similar link between chocolate consumption and aggression," said Dr. Golomb. She clarified that the data does not prove a cause and effect relationship. More research is needed to evaluate the basis of this association.
In addition to the limitations already noted above regarding these findings, consider that people's chocolate consumption was self-reported rather than carefully measured. The results of chocolate studies also tend not to specify what kind of chocolate people ate and how much cocoa the chocolate contained.
Despite the good news about chocolate, the down side has to be considered. One small piece of dark chocolate has about 50 calories, but a candy bar with its added sugar, fat, and perhaps caramel and nuts, has at least 200 calories.ADVERTISEMENT
So here's some of what you need to think about when considering whether that chocolate bar is a good idea. There are many types of chocolate — dark, semisweet, sweet, milk, and white. Dark chocolate is the type that evidence indicates offers health benefits due to the presence of flavanols, a form of flavonoid. In its natural state, cocoa has a very strong and bitter taste. The chocolate products that end up on store shelves are usually highly processed to reduce this taste and the processing results in a loss of flavanols. While it is generally believed that dark chocolate contains the highest levels of flavanols, this depends on how it was processed.
Despite the good news about chocolate, the down side has to be considered. One small piece of dark chocolate has about 50 calories, but a candy bar with its added sugar, fat, and perhaps caramel and nuts, has at least 200 calories.
Most major chocolate manufacturers try to keep the flavanols in their processed chocolates. For maximum flavanol consumption, the best choices are dark chocolate rather than milk chocolate and cocoa powder that has not undergone Dutch processing, a process that neutralizes the natural acidity of cocoa.
Many of the myths about chocolate and its unhealthy attributes are just that — myths. Here’s the sweet truth about this "food of the gods."
Truth - Chocolate contains a fatty acid called stearic acid. Although it is a saturated fat, which raises cholesterol levels, stearic acid is unique because the liver converts it to oleic acid, a heart healthy monounsaturated fat. Therefore, it has no effect on cholesterol levels.
Myth - Chocolate is high in caffeine.
Truth - Eating chocolate may make one feel perky, but it’s not the caffeine doing it. The amount of caffeine in a chocolate bar is roughly the same as the caffeine in a cup of decaffeinated coffee, about 10 mg. A cup of coffee can contain 100 or more milligrams of caffeine.
Myth - Chocolate is bad for you.
Truth - Au contraire! Chocolate contains relatively high amounts of flavanols that appear to help ward off heart disease and cancer, lower blood pressure, and improve insulin resistance.
Myth - Chocolate has no nutritional value.
Truth - Chocolate is a good source of minerals such as copper, iron, zinc, and magnesium. Those aforementioned flavonols are a nutritional plus for chocolate, too.
Despite the good news about chocolate, the down side has to be considered. One small piece of dark chocolate has about 50 calories, but a candy bar with its added sugar, fat, and perhaps caramel and nuts, has at least 200 calories. Those wonderful flavonols found in chocolate are also found in berries, citrus fruits, onions, grapes, many vegetables, and tea. A serving of fruits and vegetables has only 25 to 80 calories and provides those same flavonols in generous amounts.
There is no established serving size of chocolate for reaping the benefits it offers. More research is needed to determine that. A one-ounce piece of dark chocolate a few times a week can certainly fit into an otherwise balanced diet. In fact, studies have shown that when people know it is okay to eat small amounts of their favorite foods, they are more likely to stick to a healthy diet. That is a big plus for chocolate-lovers!
Here are some other ways to enjoy chocolate, the low calorie way:
- Start your morning off with a mug of fat free hot chocolate.
- Substitute applesauce or yogurt for the oil in a brownie recipe.
- Stir cocoa into hot cereal to add pizzazz to your breakfast.
- Mix a bit of chocolate syrup with yogurt for a tasty fruit dip.
- Eat a chocolate graham cracker for a snack.
- Have sugar-free chocolate pudding for dessert.