By Kerri-Ann Jennings, February 7, 2012 - 12:24pm
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 human trials.
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It’s heart-healthy. 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.
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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.
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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.
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What’s your favorite kind of chocolate? Tell us what you think below.