"It seems like anything that tastes good isn’t good for you." This was a lament I heard more times than I can remember from patients who were bemoaning what they thought was the loss of their favorite foods. While this isn’t 100% true, it can certainly seem that way, especially for people who are newly diagnosed with diabetes or who find out they have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, for example. However, there’s good news for chocolate lovers: Chocolate can actually be good for you!
But don’t rush out and load up on Hershey Kisses just yet — read on to learn how and why chocolate may actually be more friend than foe.
How chocolate is made
Chocolate is made from cacao beans that are roasted and then cracked. The insides of the beans, or the “nibs,” are crushed into a paste called chocolate liquor (which contains no alcohol). Chocolate liquor can be made into cocoa powder if the fat (cocoa butter) is removed. But to make chocolate, sugar, chocolate liquor, cocoa butter, vanilla, and milk (in the case of milk chocolate) are combined. The chocolate then goes through various refining processes to give it a smooth, silky texture. Dark chocolate contains more cocoa than milk chocolate, contains no milk, and also is lower in sugar.
Chocolate health benefits
Why is chocolate considered healthy, then? Well, it’s really the dark chocolate that carries the health benefits (sorry, all you milk chocolate lovers). You may recall from previous posts and other reading you’ve done that some foods contain phytonutrients called flavonoids, which are a type of antioxidant. Cocoa, or cacao, beans are rich in flavonoids. Researchers have been learning more and more about flavonoids in foods such as fruits, vegetables, and tea. Now they’ve added chocolate to their list. So, then, what health benefits does dark chocolate have to offer? To date, a handful of studies have shown some surprising, but positive, effects from eating chocolate.
In one study, 21 healthy adults were split into two groups—one group got to eat a Dove chocolate bar every day for two weeks (yes, this was a tough study to be part of!). The Dove bar was rich in flavonoids, which are thought to help lower cholesterol and lower the risk of blood clots. But the second group wasn’t totally deprived—they, too, ate a chocolate bar every day for two weeks, but their chocolate had the flavonoids removed. After the two weeks, all subjects had a test to evaluate how well their blood vessels dilated and relaxed, an indication of how healthy their blood vessels were. The Dove bar group scored significantly better than the regular chocolate bar group.
Dark chocolate may also help lower blood pressure in people who have hypertension. In this particular study, published in the July 4, 2007, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, half of a group of 44 adults with either high blood pressure or prehypertension was told to eat 30 calories of dark chocolate every day for 18 weeks. The other half ate 30 calories of white chocolate (which contains no flavonoids) every day. After 18 weeks, the dark chocolate group had a 2.9 mm Hg drop in systolic blood pressure (the top number), and a 1.9 mm Hg drop in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number). The white chocolate group had no change in blood pressure.
A meta-analysis of seven studies published in 2011 “linked high chocolate consumption with a 37% reduction in cardiovascular disease risk, a 31% reduction in diabetes risk and a 29% reduction in stroke risk when compared to low chocolate consumption,” according to ABC News. And another study published in the February 2015 of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition indicated that chocolate may help prevent Type 2 diabetes.
Researchers speculate that dark chocolate increases levels of nitric oxide in the body, which helps blood vessels relax and open up. And other studies have shown that eating dark chocolate can improve insulin sensitivity, or how well insulin works in the body, which, in turn, may help with blood glucose control.
How to incorporate chocolate into a meal plan
Here’s the catch: Chocolate is certainly no substitute for taking your blood pressure, cholesterol, or diabetes medicine. And chocolate is definitely not a low-calorie, low-fat treat. A 1.4-ounce dark chocolate bar from one popular brand contains 220 calories, 13 grams of fat (8 of them saturated), and 24 grams of carbohydrate.
While there is no set recommendation for how much chocolate you should eat to reap its health benefits, it’s OK to fit in a small amount (1 ounce, for example) of chocolate every day as long as you account for the calories, fat, and carbs in your meal plan. Also, try to choose dark chocolate with a cocoa content higher then 50% and main ingredients of cocoa butter and cocoa solids. And when the cold wind blows, settle down with a cup of hot cocoa to warm your heart.