There are some things we eat because they’re good for our bodies (and tasty, too – I know I love me some leafy greens!), and other things that are just pure indulgence. Sure, we can tell ourselves that ice cream is loaded with calcium, but that really doesn’t offset all the fat and sugar it contains. But might there actually be that mythical treat out there: one that is delicious and good for you? Turns out, dark chocolate could just be the perfect combination of indulgent and beneficial.
Dark Chocolate Stats
Feeling skeptical that nibbling on chocolate can actually be good for you? Well, according to David L. Katz, MD, MPH, the president of True Health Initiative and the founding director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University Griffin Hospital, “Chocolate is the decisive rebuttal to the ‘If it’s good for me, it can’t taste good’ mentality.” It has to be dark chocolate, though, (not milk or white), and the higher the cocoa content, the better.
Just what are some of the nutrients found in this delicious “superfood”? 100 grams (or 3.5 ounces) of 70-85% cocoa dark chocolate contains:
- 100 grams of fiber
- 67% of your recommended daily intake of iron
- 58% of the RDI of magnesium
- 89% of the RDI for copper
- 98% of the RDI for manganese
- 33% of the RDI for iron
- A good amount of potassium, calcium, phosphorous, zinc, and selenium
- Tons of antioxidants, like polyphenols, flavanols and catechins. One study showed that cocoa and dark chocolate had more antioxidant activity, polyphenols, and flavanols than any other fruits tested, which included blueberries and acai berries.
One thing to remember, though, is that 100 grams of dark chocolate is a fairly large amount, and too much to be eating on a daily basis. After all, dark chocolate still contains sugar, and 100 grams of it packs a 600-calorie punch. That being said, the benefits of eating dark chocolate seem to make up for any possible disadvantages, as long as you approach it with moderation; for example, try savoring one or two squares of quality stuff after dinner.
So just what are some of the astounding findings on dark chocolate?
It Might Get Your Blood Pumping in Just the Right Way
And no, we’re not talking about dark chocolate’s rumored aphrodisiacal qualities, although those are being studied, too! We’re talking about one of the most amazing things that researchers now think dark chocolate can do: lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. While many of the studies being touted are observational, and further research needs to be done, what researchers have seen is very, very promising. For example, a study in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate dark chocolate more than 5 times a week had a 57% lower chance of developing heart disease as compared to others. And, In a study of 470 elderly men, cocoa was found to reduce the risk of death from heart disease by a whopping 50% over a 15 year period. Another study suggests that eating chocolate two or more times a week lowered the risk of having calcified plaque in the arteries by 32%. In addition, a large meta-study in the journal Heart found that chocolate consumption can lower the risk of both heart disease and stroke. So what makes dark chocolate such a heart hero? It’s all about the effects on blood pressure (which explains why it might also help prevent strokes). According to research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it could be the flavonoids found in dark chocolate that make it so magical. These chemicals help produce nitric oxide, a substance that sends signals to the blood vessels to relax, which allows your blood pressure to lower.
Dark Chocolate Can Give Your Mood – and Your Brain – a Boost
If the thought of sitting back, relaxing, and savoring a few squares of delicious, quality chocolate is making you feel good already, just wait until you sink your teeth into that brown gold! Why? Dark chocolate is actually packed with mood-boosting chemicals, like theobromine, the sister compound to caffeine, anandamide, which is structurally similar to THC, and phenethylamine, which is metabolized into your body as serotonin. Recognize that chemical? Yep, it’s one of the most mood-regulating, feel-good substances that your body produces.
Not only does it help give you a mood lift, but dark chocolate might also juice up your brain, as well. Remember how it improves blood flow? Well, that goes for blood flow to the brain, as well, so it can significantly improve cognitive function. Again, many studies so far have been observational studies, but it has been shown that eating high-flavanol cocoa for five days improved blood flow to the brain. One study by British psychologists even found that eating dark chocolate improved participants’ ability to do mental math! In addition, out of eight studies on chocolate and mood, five showed improvements in mood, and three showed “clear evidence of cognitive enhancement,” according to the journal Nutrition Reviews. I’m feeling better already.
It Could Be a Treat That Improves Your Blood Sugar Levels
If you’re struggling with diabetes, or at risk for developing it, then you know you’ve got to steer clear of sugary snacks. But lower sugar, darker chocolate and cacao could actually help with insulin resistance. Again, those magical flavonoids have another function: they can help to reduce what’s called oxidative stress, which some scientists think is the main cause of insulin resistance. Reducing your insulin resistance will in turn lower your risk of diabetes.
In addition, a study published in the journal Appetite found that, after 5 years, the participants who didn’t eat chocolate were twice as likely to develop diabetes than those who ate chocolate at least one a week. Well, we didn’t see that one coming!
It’s Good for Your Gut – and Your Waistline?
What does dark chocolate have to do with your gut, other than the fact that you want to get it in there as fast as possible? Well, your gut is a microbiome filled with trillions of microbes – teeny tiny good bacteria that are always hard at work in your digestive tract, helping to maintain your weight, support your immune system and metabolism, absorb nutrients, and even regulate your mood. These microbes need to eat, too – and what they feed on is prebiotics. You’ve probably guessed what we’re going to say next! Yep, dark chocolate is a prebiotic, meaning it’s a type of plant-based fiber that passes through our digestive tract undigested to the large intestine, where those superheroes of the gut, probiotics, use it as fuel. In fact, in one study, 22 volunteers who consumed a high-flavanol cocoa for four weeks experienced significant increases in their gut populations of the extremely beneficial probiotics, Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli.
But not only does dark chocolate help regulate your waistline by fueling your probiotic population, some researchers suggest that a little bit of chocolate before or after meals might help trigger hormones in the brain that signal to your brain that you’re full. Just don’t go overboard or you’ll cancel out the benefits!
Dark Chocolate Keeps You Beautiful!
Long gone are the days of people telling you to put down the chocolate to keep your skin looking its best. Or, at least the dark chocolate! Remember all of those lovely nutrients found in dark chocolate, like copper, iron, and magnesium? They’re all great for your skin, as is manganese, which supports the production of collagen, a protein that keeps skin looking younger and healthier. In addition, there are some studies that suggest dark chocolate can actually protect your skin from the sun, which is great news for both the look and health of your skin. The flavanols in dark chocolate have been shown to prevent damage from ultraviolet rays, the light emitted by the sun. One study measured the minimal erythema dose, a measure that shows how much exposure will begin to negatively affect skin, in those who consumed dark chocolate. Those who consumed dark chocolate rich in flavanols for a few weeks had a dramatically higher MED than those who didn’t, and a high MED is good because it means you need to be exposed to more UV light for it to begin damaging your skin.. So, next time you’re planning a beach vacation, stock up on sunscreen, and high quality dark chocolate!
It Bumps Up Good Cholesterol, and Might Give a Kick in the Pants to Bad Cholesterol
In the past few decades, we’ve heard more and more about the importance of raising your HDL, or “good cholesterol,” while lowering your LDL, or “bad cholesterol.” Turns out, dark chocolate might be able to do both of these things. One study in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that participants who ate a handful of almonds, dark chocolate, and unsweetened cocoa showed a significant drop in LDL. And, cocoa butter, the fat in dark chocolate, contains oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated fat – the same fat you find in heart-healthy olive oil. It should be noted, though, that it also contains saturated fat, so it is again important to enjoy dark chocolate in moderation.
So, while moderation is key when it comes to dark chocolate (as it is for many things), it looks like this is one treat you can truly feel good about indulging in. Next time you’re despairing that you can’t find anything delicious and nutritious to satisfy a craving, head to the chocolate aisle, pick up some high quality dark chocolate (the darker, the better) and relax with a few squares – your mood, gut, heart, brain, and skin might just thank you for it.