The Health Benefits Of Chocolate As Part Of A Balanced Diet

Famous cartoonist and creator of the Peanuts characters, Charles Schulz, once said, “All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt.” Chocolate sometimes gets a bad rap for being unhealthy due to its fat and sugar content, but numerous studies have shown that chocolate can be very beneficial when enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. Here is some additional information about chocolate to keep in mind the next time you decide to indulge in a craving for this delicious treat.

A History of Chocolate

Chocolate is believed to have first been enjoyed as a fermented drink. The earliest accounts are from the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, but recent research has uncovered even earlier evidence in Honduras from around 1400 BC. Early Spanish explorers brought a sweetened version of the bitter drink back to Spain, and it rapidly grew in popularity. By the 17th century, chocolate was a fashionable drink throughout Europe. Cocoa was developed in the early 1800s, when a Dutch chemist discovered a way to remove some of the natural fat from the chocolate liquor and process the residual product into a powder. The availability of cocoa powder led to the creation of solid chocolate, including candy bars.

Today, chocolate is a 4-billion-dollar industry in the United States. While much of the chocolate sold in the U.S. is heavily processed and overly sweetened, dark chocolate has been found to offer several health benefits. Chocolate that has a high percentage of cocoa is rich in disease-fighting vitamins and minerals such as iron, copper, magnesium, zinc and phosphorus.

Protects Against Heart-Related Health Issues

Researchers have found that moderate consumption of chocolate may lower the risk of developing heart disease or other cardiometabolic disorders that can dramatically impact longevity and quality of life. The cocoa used to produce chocolate is rich in flavanols. These plant chemicals can be helpful in lowering blood pressure by relaxing the blood vessels and improving blood flow. Studies have also shown that flavanols and plant sterols found in cocoa may help lower LDL cholesterol (“bad cholesterol”) levels. It is also believed that people who consume a sensible amount of chocolate each week may be less likely to suffer from a stroke.

Combats Cognitive Decline

Although research is still ongoing in this area, several studies have linked the improved blood flow and oxygen levels associated with the consumption of chocolate to a positive effect on memory and cognitive function. Researchers suggest that cocoa flavanols may even prevent some neural pathway damage, such as the degradation that occurs in Alzheimer’s patients. A study published by the New England Journal of Medicine even makes an intriguing leap that chocolate consumption may be linked to high brain function. The study points out that regions of the world with the most Nobel Prize recipients also have the highest per capita chocolate consumption.

Contributes to Overall Health

Chocolate offers a number of other benefits beyond those associated with heart and brain health:

  • Provides an energy boost. Chocolate contains a small amount of caffeine. Not enough to keep you awake, but enough to provide a little “lift”.
  • Protects from sun damage. The flavonols found in cocoa offer some protection from the sun by improving blood flow, hydrating the skin and increasing skin density.
  • Boosts mood and may help combat depression. The compounds in cocoa stimulate feel-good endorphins. Chocolate also contains a small amount of the amino acid tryptophan. The brain uses tryptophan to make serotonin, which can produce feelings of happiness.
  • Lowers diabetes risk. Studies have linked chocolate consumption to an increased sensitivity to insulin, which can help control blood sugar - a key factor in developing diabetes.

Chocolate Selection and Consumption Tips

If you are ready to start eating chocolate for health, it is important to pay close attention to quality and quantity. In addition, it is always advisable to consult a medical professional before making significant modifications to your diet. Here are some guidelines:

  • Select dark chocolate. Dark chocolate contains up to 2-3 times more flavanol-rich cocoa solids than milk chocolate. For the most antioxidant and nutrient-rich option, be sure to select a dark chocolate with more than 70% cocoa.
  • Opt for primo ingredients. Don’t settle for second-best when it comes to chocolate. Ensure that “cocoa” is in the first ingredient listed and that all of the other ingredients are top quality.
  • Limit intake. Although chocolate offers many health benefits, it is still high in sugar and fat. A good rule of thumb is to only consume what you can burn off. One 70% cocoa bar contains approximately 170 calories. To burn 170 calories, the average adult needs to walk for 45 minutes, cycle for 25 minutes or swim for 15 minutes.
  • Savor each bite! Chocolate is delicious, so be sure to take the time to really enjoy its flavor and richness.

At Plush Mills, we like to say that life is both sweet and savory. Our dining room offers a wide selection of seasonal daily offerings designed to both excite the palate and support overall health. Schedule a tour today to learn more about our community and our nutrition and wellness programs.