Chocolate is healthy. Yes, eating chocolate is actually good for you.
Despite the bad reputation that chocolate gets as being a fattening and unhealthy sweet snack, chocolate actually has many proven health benefits. Before I share these with you let me clear some things up.
- When I say ‘chocolate is good for you’ I am talking about dark chocolate
- It is the cocoa in chocolate that possesses all the health benefits – and how dark a chocolate is reflects the amount of cocoa in it. That’s why the darker the chocolate, the healthier it is
- What I am NOT talking about is the sugar-laden processed type of chocolate bar that is always at eye-level at supermarket checkouts and newsagents. This stuff is categorically NOT good for you
A little low-down on chocolate
Chocolate is made from the seeds of the theobroma cacao tree. These little seeds are responsible for giving chocolate its rich, sweet and well, ‘chocolaty’ taste. They are also packed full of powerful antioxidants and polyphenols as well as a high content of minerals and vitamins that are responsible for the amazing health benefits of chocolate.
If you have ever eaten cocoa nibs then you will know that these little seeds are crunchy, bitter and rather chalky in texture. They are not to everyone’s palate which is why ‘chocolate’ as we know it was invented; mixing these seeds with cocoa butter, milk and sugar has made the most famous sweet treat on the planet – a taste that we all know and love.
The problem is that the content of actual cocoa (i.e. the good stuff) in most chocolate is minimal. Instead it is loaded with sugar and milk fats that really hit those reward centres in the brain and makes chocolate powerfully addictive to so many people as well as pretty bad for their health.
Dark chocolate on the other hand (ideally 85-90% cocoa solids) is a whole other story.
So what’s all the fuss with dark chocolate about? Is it really that good for you?
Yes it is. This may be rather convenient for me to say – given that I am a self-confessed chocolate lover, but the benefits of cocoa have been backed up by lots of scientific research.
1) Helps lower cholesterol levels
Natural polyphenols in chocolate can increase the amount of HDL cholesterol (‘good’ cholesterol), and decrease the amount of LDL cholesterol (the ‘bad’ guys). The antioxidant effect of polyphenols also have the ability to reduce the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, therefore reducing the amount of LDL plaques that are formed on artery walls. To read more about why this is so important see this post.
2) Helps fight depression and lift mood
We can all contest to the fact that eating chocolate makes us feel good! This is partly because eating chocolate increases the amount of a cannabinoid neurotransmitter called ‘anandamide’. The name ‘anandamide’ comes from the Sanskrit for ‘bliss, delight’ (it is also where the ‘Andaman Islands’ get there name from) and as you might expect, it makes us feel pretty good.
3) Helps fight chronic inflammation
Chronic inflammation is at the root of many health conditions. The epicatechins (I still have no idea how to pronounce this) – a type of antioxidant found in chocolate – have potent anti-infammatory effects and may help to protect against a plethora of chronic health issues, from neurodegeneration to depression and heart disease.
4) Helps decrease the negative effects of stress
It’s easy to reach for a bit of chocolate when we are feeling stressed right? Well as long as this is dark chocolate then this might actually be a helpful coping mechanism. Eating chocolate when we are feeling anxious has been shown to reduce the levels of stress hormones as well as decreasing their detrimental effects on our body.
5) Helps balance blood sugar levels
The flavonoids in chocolate have been shown to help increase insulin sensitivity and help regulate our blood sugar. One mechanism is by increasing the body’s production of nitric oxide, which helps to increase insulin sensitivity. Another possible mechanism is through the high levels of manganese that dark chocolate contains – a mineral necessary for efficient blood sugar regulation.
Top tips for chocolate consumption
- Try to buy organic, good quality dark chocolate as this tends to have the highest nutritional content
- If you are new to dark chocolate start at around 60% and work your way up to 85-80%. This means you will be seriously increasing your antioxidant status
- 2 squares of 85-90% dark chocolate is a good daily amount to get the health benefits
- Using raw cocoa powder in drinks such as hot chocolates and in baking (especially raw desserts) is a great way to incorporate the health benefits of dark chocolate into your diet. (Obviously you still need to watch your overall sugar intake).
My star chocolate recipe’s as far as cocoa content and antioxidant load are