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Stressed and tired? How cocoa could help

By Cheryl Forberg, R.D., February 10, 2011 - 11:45am

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I love to bake for friends and family, and whipping up recipes that contain cocoa makes it even sweeter.

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Cocoa beans are among the richest sources of antioxidants called flavonoids and polyphenols—similar to those found in wine—which benefit both your physical and mental health. So go ahead and treat your Valentine to chocolate—it’s a gift of health. Chocolate can:

• Protect your heart: Flavonoids can lower your risk of heart attack and stroke by helping to reduce the blood’s ability to clot, among other things.

• Quell stress: In a 2009 study conducted in Switzerland, researchers measured stress levels of 30 healthy adults daily over two weeks and found that eating 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate daily reduced stress-hormone levels in those who had high anxiety levels. (Just be sure to account for the 235 calories that 1.4 ounces of chocolate delivers—or you may be stressed to see extra pounds creeping on.)

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• Fight fatigue: Cocoa may help ward off fatigue as well. A small 2010 study in the UK found that polyphenols—the group of antioxidant s that includes flavonoids—helped sufferers of chronic fatigue syndrome combat symptoms, including anxiety and depression.

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Keep these tips in mind when cooking with—and eating—chocolate:

Use natural (nonalkalized) unsweetened cocoa powder when possible. There are two types of unsweetened cocoa powder, alkalized (Dutched) and natural, or nonalkalized. Both are rich in the antioxidant compounds polyphenols; however some of these healthy treasures are lost when cocoa powder is Dutched, a process to neutralize its acidity and give it a mellower flavor. (A note when baking: For the most part, the two types of cocoa powder can be used interchangeably, but occasionally, if a recipe calls for Dutch-process cocoa and you use natural, you might need to add baking soda to replace the acid that would have come from the Dutch-process cocoa, to help with leavening.)

Trade that rich cup of cocoa for a box of chocolates. Alas, just because cocoa delivers healthy benefits doesn’t mean you should lunge for that heart-shaped box of candy. The high sugar and fat content of most chocolates will outweigh the benefits of cocoa. Remember: the purer the form of cocoa, the more cocoa solids it has and the more antioxidants it delivers. Instead, heat up a rich cup of cocoa using low-fat milk and a little honey or agave nectar.

Chocolate Almond Pudding
Recipe reprinted with permission from “Positively Ageless: A 28-Day Plan for a Younger, Slimmer, Sexier You” by Cheryl Forberg, R.D. (Rodale).

Makes 4 Servings (1/2 cup each)
There are a variety of ready-to-drink nut milks on the market, which are made by soaking nuts or seeds in water, blending, and then straining the liquid. Served warm or cold, this silky crowd-pleaser takes just minutes to prepare. If you have a nut allergy, you can also prepare the pudding using low-fat milk or soy milk.

1/4 cup unsweetened natural cocoa powder
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups unflavored almond milk, preferably unsweetened or sweetened with brown rice syrup
1/3 cup agave nectar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons toasted slivered almonds
In a 1-quart saucepan, combine the cocoa, cornstarch, and salt. Add just enough of the milk to make a smooth paste. Gradually stir in the agave and the remaining milk.
Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla extract. Pour into 4 serving dishes and cool. Sprinkle with the almonds just before serving.

Nutrient Analysis per Serving
167 calories, 3 g protein, 32 g carbohydrates, 4 g total fat, 1 g saturated fat, 1 g monounsaturated fat, 0 mg omega-3s, 2 g fiber, 20 g sugar, 218 mg sodium

What's your favorite way to eat chocolate: in a baked good or straight up?

Cheryl Forberg, R.D.

Cheryl Forberg, R.D.

Cheryl Forberg, R.D., is a James Beard Award-winning author, the nutritionist for NBC's The Biggest Loser and author of Positively Ageless: A 28-Day Plan for a Younger, Slimmer, Sexier You (Rodale, 2008).

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TAGS: Cheryl Forberg, R.D., Health Blog, Health, Wellness

Cheryl Forberg, R.D.
Cheryl Forberg, R.D., is a James Beard Award-winning author, the nutritionist for NBC's The Biggest Loser and author of Positively Ageless: A 28-Day Plan for a Younger, Slimmer, Sexier You (Rodale, 2008).

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