When you make healthy eating and living a priority, you get pretty good at naming off your superfoods. You stock up on blueberries, almonds, olive oil, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli…chocolate? No, chocolate is not exactly considered a health food. However, when you choose your chocolate carefully and you strategically measure out how much of it you eat, it can have a positive impact on your health and diet. This is great news for anyone who loves chocolate but felt like they had to avoid it in order to control weight and stay fit. But don’t grab just any commercial candy bar out of the nearest vending machine. That’s the chocolate that’s filled with fat and sugar, and it’s sure to derail your healthy eating plan.
The best chocolate is dark chocolate, and the best dark chocolate is made from at least 70 percent of cacao. Cacao is the secret ingredient that makes the dark chocolate healthy; it’s packed with flavonols and other healthy disease-fighting chemicals and compounds. Cacao can pack a strong, bitter taste as well, and if you ate it on its own, the flavor probably wouldn’t impress you. To make it more enjoyable, most dark chocolate will have the cacao mixed with more traditional sweets like butter and sugar, but there are plenty of vegan options as well. Get the best benefits from dark chocolate that’s made with at least 70 percent cacao. If that ingredient doesn’t work for you no matter what the percentage, it’s okay to look for dark chocolate that uses cocoa instead. Cocoa is a close (roasted) relative of cacao.
Still not convinced you can get away with eating chocolate? Take a look at these seven health benefits that you gain with every blissful bite:
- Heart Health. The flavonols in dark chocolate contain antioxidant properties that make your entire vascular system more flexible. Your arteries and veins work better and your heart is able to pump blood with less effort. This increases the efficiency of your body’s most important muscle. When you introduce a few ounces of dark chocolate into your diet, you’ll reduce your chances of heart failure and lower your blood pressure. Researchers at the German Institute of Human Nutrition released a study in 2010 that showed one square of dark chocolate per day reduced the risk of heart attack and stroke by 39 percent. Those are pretty great odds. Studies in Sweden and Australia have also confirmed the healthy heart effects of dark chocolate and its ability to keep blood pressure in check.
- Diabetes Detractor. It’s pretty common knowledge that the more sugar you eat, the more you put yourself at risk for diabetes. So it might seem counter-intuitive to increase your chocolate intake in order to avoid diabetes. However, when it’s dark chocolate you’re eating, avoiding diabetes gets a whole lot easier. Those flavonols are working overtime again and helping your body manage and process insulin. Nitric oxide is responsible for controlling your insulin sensitivity, and the flavonols in dark chocolate increase the body’s production of nitric oxide. If diabetes runs in your family, or you’ve had problems regulating insulin in the past, see what kind of impact a bit of dark chocolate has on your blood levels.
- Smarty Pants. If you want to get into MENSA but you’re not such a good test taker, maybe eat a little bit more dark chocolate. It will make you smarter. Scientific evidence has shown that when you consume dark chocolate, the flavonols encourage blood flow to the brain, and the effects last for at least two or three hours. The extra boost can’t hurt, especially if you’re about to take a big test or deliver a major presentation. Dark chocolate will also help you hang onto your intelligence for a little longer. Oxford University researchers found that people over 70 who consumed foods rich in flavonols, such as dark chocolate, had a greater cognitive ability than those who did not consume such foods.
- Weight Loss Wonders. Yes, even modest amounts of dark chocolate contain a relatively high calorie count. If you’re trying to lose weight, you know that every calorie counts. What you need to remember is that not every calorie is created equal. For example, the calories in dark chocolate will leave you feeling fuller than the calories you’ll find in a cookie or an ice cream cone. The density of dark chocolate’s ingredients goes to work on your metabolism and your cravings. You’ll feel more satisfied after eating a small piece of dark chocolate, and you’ll find your cravings for additional sugars and fats might disappear. There is no better news for a dieter; allow yourself a small square of dark chocolate once or twice a day, and the scale won’t punish you.
- Stress Stopper. Do you binge on sweets after a break-up or a bad day at work? Emotional eating is not uncommon, and when people are extremely high or devastatingly low, they tend to reach for something sugary and sweet. If you absolutely have to do that, make sure it’s dark chocolate you’re reaching for in your time of need. It will make you feel better and essentially talk you down off whatever emotional ledge of anxiety you happen to be teetering on. Stress kicks off extra activity in your cortisol level, which pretty much sets off alarm sirens all over your body, screwing up your mental and physical health. Regular consumption of dark chocolate can reduce your stress hormones and keep your metabolic meter in check. There’s no need to burn through an entire bag of gummy bears; you’re better off with a sampling of dark chocolate. Let yourself splurge and you’ll start feeling better right away.
- Happy Pregnancies. Okay, if you’re not willing to eat chocolate for your own health reasons, think about your kids. Scientists at the University of Helsinki in Finland conducted a study which showed that expectant mothers who ate regular amounts of chocolate during their pregnancies were less stressed and more prepared for the demands of motherhood than the women who (sadly) abstained from chocolate. If you’re ever been pregnant, you know that food cravings are part of the job. If you crave something sweet and chocolatey, send your partner out for a dark chocolate bar and relax with the knowledge that your pregnancy depends upon this delicious indulgence. Another item worth noting is that the same Finnish study also pointed out that the babies of the chocolate-eating mothers were found to smile more and to generally be happier. Well, of course!
- Digestive Drama. A tasty morsel of dark chocolate at the end of a meal will cleanse your palate and offer just the right amount of sweetness. It can also keep your digestion in check. It turns out dark chocolate is effective in stopping diarrhea. Those flavonols we keep talking about know how to treat the small intestine. The cocoa binds into a protein, which manages any excessive fluid secretion that might be happening. There is also fiber to be found in the cacao that makes up dark chocolate, which helps to produce your body’s digestive enzymes. If you grew up in South America in the 16th or 17th century, this news will come as no surprise to you. Those cultures used dark chocolate to treat intestinal and digestive ailments regularly.
The key to enjoying all the health benefits dark chocolate has to offer is to eat it in moderation. Remember to look for that 70 percent cacao or cocoa and don’t eat it by the pound. The Mayo Clinic recommends that you stick to about three ounces or 85 grams of dark chocolate per day. All of the research that has been conducted to establish the health benefits contained in dark chocolate used a similar amount. While the antioxidants and flavonols in dark chocolate can help you reduce the risk of stroke, heart failure, and diabetes, consuming too much will not bring you the desired effects.
It doesn’t hurt to get creative and combine the dark chocolate you want to eat with other healthy superfoods. For example, drizzle your blueberries and dip your strawberries in dark chocolate to get a maximum hit of antioxidants. Look for a satisfying and delicious snack like almonds, raisins, or walnuts covered in dark chocolate. Most commercial dark chocolate is a bit more expensive than other types of chocolate, thanks to the ingredients being a bit harder to mass produce. It’s worth the extra money you pay, however, to enjoy a chocolate treat that not only tastes good but helps your heart, your brain, your body, and your stress levels.
Most of the research that has been done on dark chocolate and its health effects has focused on the short term. The impact this type of chocolate has on your health in the long term is still being studied, and the scientific, health, and medical communities will surely pay attention to whatever news breaks about the benefits that dark chocolate might have over the course of a person’s entire life.
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