You may have heard the phrase “chocolate therapy” before, and perhaps it made you roll your eyes. However, chocolate can have more health benefits than drawbacks depending on how it is prepared. The beneficial part of chocolate, unsurprisingly, is the natural part: the cocoa itself. When lots of sugar, milk and fat are added, the cocoa’s positive properties are often cancelled out and the tasty treat isn’t as good for you. That’s why medical doctors and therapists are often careful to recommend dark rather than milk chocolate – and never white chocolate, which is basically just sugar. Psychology Today recommends at least 85% cocoa, though pure cocoa, however bitter, will provide the best health benefits (Psychology Today). The cocoa in dark chocolate contains many antioxidants, healthy fats, flavonoids and fiber. It also includes many nutrients such as iron, manganese, magnesium and copper (UPMC Infographic).
Cocoa contains resveratrol, which is an antioxidant proven to increase serotonin and endorphins in the brain. Chocolate has also been proven to increase dopamine and oxytocin levels in the mind. All of these chemicals can release stress and increase positive feelings, and you don’t even have to eat any to get the side effects. Keeping some dark chocolate by your work space or in a quiet area in the house can have the same stress-reducing effects as eating a small piece of it can (Huffington Post).
Many sources report that chocolate can have positive effects for both mother and child if mom adds chocolate to her pregnancy diet. One study done in 2004 found that this can have lasting positive effects on the baby, leading to more active and happy babies at six months old (PubMed.gov). Parents.com also reports “women who eat five or more servings of chocolate each week during their third trimester have a 40 percent lower risk of developing the dangerous high blood pressure condition known as preeclampsia” (Parents).
In her article, Stoler explains that concussions cause inflammation of the brain, therefore it is the anti-inflammatory elements of dark chocolate that can help with concussion symptoms (Psychology Today). Chocolate that is high in sugar and fat, however, can have the opposite effect.
The flavanol in cocoa can help prevent memory loss as we age. Flavanol has many other benefits, some of which possibly alleviate stress and even depression.
As explained in the Telegraph, “Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which is the same chemical that your brain creates when you feel like you’re falling in love” (The Telegraph). PEA helps with endorphin production, which in turn can help you feel better than you would without it.
The polyphenol antioxidants and caffeine in dark chocolate can help boost your energy if included in your regular diet.
Scientists believe that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of chocolate come largely from the flavonoids, which are more prominent in dark chocolate. Dutch chocolate and white chocolate have almost no flavonoids at all, as “dutching” is a chemical process that removes them, and white chocolate contains no actual cocoa (CNN).
The anti-inflammatory benefits of the flavanols in cocoa cause blood vessels to dilate, which in turn reduces blood pressure. This can be beneficial to a whole host of blood or cardiovascular problems. Cocoa also helps increase flexibility in arteries and keeps white blood cells from sticking to the vessel walls, which decrease chances artery clogging (Science Daily).
Eating a small square of chocolate before and after a meal has been proven to help suppress your appetite and keep you from overeating during the meal itself (Telegraph).
Dark chocolate has been proven to reduce “bad” cholesterol and increase “good” cholesterol. This balance with cholesterol can lower your risk of diabetes and other diseases related to high cholesterol. In fact, dark chocolate has been linked to diabetes prevention in other ways as well.
While it may sound counterintuitive, the antioxidants and appetite suppressing elements of chocolate can help avoid developing diabetes later in life. CNN explains that from a sample of adults taking part in a study, those “who ate half an ounce of dark chocolate a day for 15 days had better insulin sensitivity, and lower blood pressure to boot, than adults who ate a similar amount of white chocolate” (CNN).
An article on Authority Nutrition explains that the increased blood flow caused by the flavanols also affects your skin. With better blood flow to your skin, its density increases and your risk of dehydration and sunburn decreases (AuthorityNutrition).
According to a study done at the Children’s Hospital and Research Center in Oakland, CA, “...cocoa flavonoids can bind to and inhibit a protein in the intestines called CFTR, which regulates fluid secretion in the small intestines” (Children’s Hospital Oakland). Using natural remedies like chocolate can help prevent the dehydration and discomfort from prolonged intestinal trouble, and can be given to patients of all ages without as many side-effects as some over the counter remedies.
Of course, if you start over-indulging in chocolate of any kind, negative side effects can start to settle in. The recommended “dosage” for a positive effect is typically 1-2 ounces a day. According to Psych Central, the positive elements can also easily be cancelled out by drinking milk along with the chocolate, as the milk interferes with the antioxidants. Additionally, “Eating too much chocolate each day can cause complications including migraines, weight gain, digestive tract problems, kidney stones and heartburn. And all chocolate contains caffeine, which is a problem for some as well” (Psych Central).
Baker, Andrew. “World Chocolate Day: 10 Convincing Health Reasons You Should Eat More of the Stuff”, The Telegraph online. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/food-and-drink/healthy-eating/chocolate-10-health-reasons-you-should-eat-more-of-it/
“Children's Hospital Oakland Scientists First to Discover Cocoa Bean Extracts Can Relieve intestinal problems”, Children’s Hospital Oakland. http://www.childrenshospitaloakland.org/main/news/childrens-hospital-oakland-scientists-first-to-dis-137.aspx
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "Why dark chocolate is good for your heart." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140227092149.htm
Gunnars, Kris. “7 Proven Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate”, Authority Nutrition. https://authoritynutrition.com/7-health-benefits-dark-chocolate/
“Infographic: Health Benefits of Chocolate”, UPMC Health Beat. http://share.upmc.com/2015/02/health-benefits-chocolate/
Nguyen, Thai. “Hacking Into Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins and Oxytocin”, Huffington Post. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/thai-nguyen/hacking-into-your-happy-c_b_6007660.html
Paul, Annie Murphy. “16 Pregnancy Myths”, Parents Online. http://www.parents.com/pregnancy/my-body/is-it-safe/16-pregnancy-myths/?slideId=44714
Stoler, Dianne Robers Ed.D. “Dark Chocolate: Good for Your Brain!”, Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-resilient-brain/201410/dark-chocolate-good-your-brain
Storrs, Carina. “Is Dark Chocolate Good or Bad For Health?”, CNN Health. http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/10/health/chocolate-health-benefits/
Walcutt, Diana L. Ph.D “Chocolate and Mood Disorders”, Psych Central. http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2009/04/27/chocolate-and-mood-disorders/
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