When it comes to dessert, chocolate is my weakness. The silky rich, bittersweet stuff is sure to satisfy my sweet tooth. As a
registered dietitian and associate nutrition editor of EatingWell Magazine, I also know that chocolate actually has
several health benefits. Still, it’s not kale—so before I totally get swept away by chocolate’s healthy halo, I try to
remember that there are some drawbacks to my favorite treat too.
Health Benefits of Chocolate
It’s (almost) a diet food.
Preliminary findings from Hershey suggest that natural cocoa, which
has more flavanols than Dutch-processed cocoa, may limit the number of calories you actually take in during digestion by
quashing the action of certain digestive enzymes, thus preventing some fats and starches in other foods from being absorbed.
More research is needed—this study was done in test tubes, not humans—but the authors hope that the results will hold up in
Recipes to Try: Warm
Chocolate Pudding & More Skinny Chocolate Desserts
As Joyce Hendley reported in EatingWell
Magazine, a large study
out of Harvard, published in 2010, found that women who ate one or two ounces of chocolate a week had a 32 percent lower risk
of heart failure than women who ate no chocolate. It’s possible that compounds in cocoa called flavanols help activate
enzymes that release nitric oxide—a substance that helps widen and relax blood vessels. That allows blood to flow through the
vessels more freely, reducing blood pressure. Nitric oxide is also involved in thinning blood and reducing its tendency to
clot—lowering, potentially, the risk of stroke. Not only that, some of the key flavanols in cocoa, catechins and epicatechins
(also found in red wine and green tea), are known to have heart-healthy, antioxidant effects—such as helping to prevent
artery-threatening LDL cholesterol from converting to a more lethal, oxidized form.
Best and Worst Foods to Eat for Your Heart
It makes you smile.
Just the sight of chocolate can evoke a smile, according to a recent
British survey. Sixty percent of women ranked chocolate as the most smile-worthy experience, edging out loved ones and other
smiling people. (FYI, the top pick for men was a “Sunday roast.”) Find 4 more foods that
naturally boost your mood
Recipes to Try: Instant
Chocolate Dessert Recipes
It helps you see better. When researchers had study participants eat dark chocolate, they were
better able to distinguish items on a similarly colored background and took less time to detect the direction of moving dots
(two measurements important for night driving) than when they ate white chocolate. Researchers think that
flavanols—antioxidants present in dark chocolate, but absent in white chocolate—improved vision.
Health Cons of Chocolate to Consider
Not all chocolate is created equal. Alkalized cocoa powder (the kind also known as
Dutch-processed) doesn’t pack the health punch of the natural kind. That’s because a lot of the beneficial antioxidants are
stripped during processing. When buying cocoa powder for a recipe or to make hot chocolate, choose natural cocoa powder to
reap more of cocoa’s health benefits.
Chocolate is high in calories. Let’s face it, chocolate is high in calories. Just one ounce
delivers 160 calories, thanks to the sugar and cocoa butter that get added to it. To curb your calorie intake, choose
chocolate with a high cacao content, 70% or higher—it’s more intensely flavored and will satisfy your craving in fewer bites.
Or make a hot cocoa (natural cocoa, please) with skim or 1% milk. A tablespoon of cocoa has just 12 calories and a teaspoon
of sugar has 30 (you might need two of these).
Chocolate contains caffeine. If you’re sensitive to caffeine or trying to limit your intake,
then keep in mind that chocolate is a source of caffeine (and no, I haven’t seen any caffeine-free alternatives yet). One
ounce of chocolate has 23 mg of caffeine—about the amount in half a cup of tea—but a whole bar delivers up to 100 mg,
equivalent to a cup of coffee.