Chocolate: More Than Just a Treat!

Last updated: Sep 06, 2012

By Joy Pierce Mathews for Summit Medical Group

Reviewed by Susan C. Canonico, RD


If you are a chocolate lover, you have probably heard that eating dark chocolate can help lift your spirits, protect your heart, prevent strokes, and keep your mind sharp. In particular, you’ve probably read that dark chocolate is packed with polyphenols and flavanols, substances also known as antioxidants that can protect you from cancer, heart disease, stroke, insulin resistance, rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. But other claims suggest chocolate contributes to migraine headaches, acne, and kidney stones, among other ills. With conflicting information about the effects of chocolate on its eaters, what should you believe?

One thing researchers know for certain is that dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants, which have an important role in good health.

What are antioxidants?
Antioxidants are nutrients (vitamins and minerals) and enzymes (proteins that promote chemical reactions in the body) that neutralize potentially harmful molecules known as free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that result from oxidation that occurs during natural processes such as breathing and metabolism.

Oxidation is the interaction between oxygen molecules and any substance, including metal and living tissue, with which the oxygen comes in contact. In some cases, oxidation does not have harmful effects; however, oxidation is the process that causes metal to rust, fruit to spoil, and tissue to break down and decay.

To keep your cells and tissues healthy, you need a balance of the substances that promote oxidation (oxidants) in your body with the substances that neutralize the oxidants (antioxidants). Having too few antioxidants allows free radicals to damage cells, proteins, and genetic coding (DNA). In some cases, the damaged cells die. The damage to and death of cells is associated with premature aging, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis.

As you age, you produce fewer natural antioxidants that protect against oxidation and free radicals. Although you cannot prevent free radicals from damaging your cells, you can help increase antioxidant protection by eating foods that provide antioxidants.

The good news for chocolate lovers is that 2 tablespoons of natural cocoa contain more antioxidants than 1 ½ glasses of red wine, 1 cup of blueberries, or 4 cups of green tea!

Other foods that are rich in antioxidants include:

  • Cherries, apples, pineapple, pears, plums, and avocados
  • Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and cranberries
  • Spinach, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and red cabbage
  • Black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, and red beans
  • Almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts
  • Coffee, red wine, green tea, grape juice, pomegranate juice, cranberry juice, Acai juice, orange juice

Research Supports Chocolate for Good Health
Because chocolate is rich in antioxidants and appeals to many people, its benefits have become a source of interest among some researchers.

For example, data from an 18-week study published in Journal of the American Medical Association showed that small amounts of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate added to the diets of 44 healthy adults helped lower participants’ above-optimal blood pressure from 86% to 68%.1

In another study published in Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers found that atherosclerotic vascular disease events such as heart attack, stroke, and blood clots resulting in hospitalization or death among 1216 participants over a 5-year period were significantly lower (42 events compared with158 events) in participants who consumed a serving of dark chocolate daily compared with those who ate less than 1 serving of dark chocolate each week. A serving was 25 grams to 50 grams of dark chocolate containing 5% to 15% cocoa.2

Data from a study published in Circulation showed significantly improved blood vessel flexibility and increased blood flow in heart transplant patients who consumed 40 grams of dark chocolate containing 70% cocoa compared with heart transplant patients who did not eat the chocolate.3

How much chocolate is healthy?
Many data on chocolate also show that its effects are temporary, which explains why study participants who ate chocolate daily received the greatest benefits. But eating too much chocolate can work against you, especially if you are watching your weight!

Summit Medical Group registered dietitian Susan Canonico says, “When combined with a healthy diet that’s rich in fruits and vegetables, high in fiber, and low in saturated fat, eating a small amount (6 grams or 1 small square) of chocolate with a high concentration of cocoa (60% or more) can give you health benefits without overshooting your calorie limit.” Ms. Canonico adds, “Six grams of chocolate is approximately 30 calories, so it’s far less than an average 100-calorie or 200-calorie snack that’s recommended twice daily in a typical adult diet. Some chocolate companies make small, individually wrapped 10-gram to 11-gram squares,” says Ms. Canonico. “When paired with a high-fiber, antioxidant-rich fruit, a 10-gram chocolate square is a good way to boost your antioxidants and get some of the nutrition you need for your day."
 

For more information about healthy dietary choices or to schedule an appointment,
please call Summit Medical Group Nutrition Services today
at 908-277-8731.

 

References

1. Taubert D, Roesen R, Lehmann C, Jung N, Schomig E. Effects of low habitual cocoa intake on blood pressure and bioactive nitric oxide: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2007; 298(1):49-60.
2. Lewis JR, et al. Habitual chocolate intake and vascular disease: a prospective study of clinical outcomes in older women. Arch Intern Med. 2011;170(20):1857-1858.
3. Flammer AJ, et al. Dark chocolate improves coronary vasomotion and reduces platelet reactivity. Circulation. 2007;116:2376-2382.

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