Chocolate 101

Eat More Chocolate?

By: Pam Smith, RDN


Chocolate was once reserved for the royal and the very rich – today, it is comfort food for the masses. The average American consumes about 11 pounds of chocolate per year, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. No surprise, women tend to eat more chocolate than men; those living in the West seem to eat more than people in other regions of the country.

How about you? Does chocolate – with a soothing, velvety voice – call to you from inside its glittering foil wrapper, drawing you in? The recent flurry of media reports about chocolate may ring in your mind. Is chocolate’s call a siren song, leading to weight gain and health problems? Or is it calling you to a treat with health benefits?


Truly, with all the reports out there about the healthy benefits of chocolate, it’s difficult to cull out the truth. But here it is: even a little chocolate packs plenty of fat (most contain 8 to 16 grams) and calories (around 200) per serving. And that’s if you nibble only a few pieces.


But, there’s some sweet news about solid dark chocolate, too! Stearic acid, one type of fat in chocolate, doesn’t appear to increase LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) levels, and a single 1.4-ounce portion (the government’s recommended serving size) contains little to no caffeine. In addition, dark chocolate contains ample amounts of beneficial antioxidants called flavonoids, like those found in wine, tea, and various fruits and berries.


There are several interesting lines of research about chocolate, such as how chocolate affects blood pressure, cholesterol, and the tendency to form blood clots. The effect of antioxidants in chocolate can be studied because white chocolate is similar, but without the antioxidants. This provides a good comparison.


Blood Pressure Preliminary research shows a short-term decrease in blood pressure for people who worked dark chocolate into their diets.


Cholesterol

In controlled amounts, the specific types of fat in cocoa butter don’t seem to raise blood cholesterol levels. To the contrary, the flavonoids in cocoa may reduce the dangerous plaque-making form of LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol.


Blood Clots

Flavonoid-rich cocoa and chocolate seem to have a mild tendency to make platelets less sticky. Sticky platelets are more likely to cause blood clots inside arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.


However, one study has brought in a word of caution to the health hype of chocolate: Controversial findings reveal that women between the ages 70-85 who consume chocolate daily had 3.1 percent lower whole-body bone density and strength than those who consume chocolate less than once a week. This finding is surely a minor blow to the positive cardiovascular properties of chocolate. It is suggested that additional studies are needed to confirm the observations as with all the research thus far. The studies showing chocolate’s health benefits were relatively small, because feeding large numbers of people controlled amounts of cocoa products is difficult. More extensive research with larger populations may add more strength to these conclusions.


So Should I or Shouldn't I Eat Chocolate?


As with all foods, the answer depends upon the quality and quantity of the cocoa product. Studies have not yet determined the exact amount of chocolate to eat for maximum health effect, but three-quarters of an ounce (really, that small of a piece!) of dark chocolate provides an equal amount (400 milligrams) of antioxidants as a glass of red wine. I know, I know, some would say that antioxidants never tasted so good!


The key words to the observed health benefits are dark chocolate (not sweet milk chocolate or candy bars!) and a few ounces a week (not a few ounces an hour).


If you ate 1 ½ chocolate bars a day above your calorie needs, you would gain about 4 pounds in one month! Gaining weight can lead to many health problems and would eliminate any benefit from having more flavonoids in your diet.


If you’re going to indulge on Feb. 14 or any other day, here are some tips on working cocoa-containing products into your diet without adding too many calories:

  • Choose dark chocolate. Look for bars with at least 60 percent cocoa solids (some brands of dark chocolate contain as much as 75 percent). Milk chocolate has fewer flavonoids than dark, and white chocolate and commercial candy bars have almost none. Look at the ingredients. To get the most flavonoids, make sure the first listed ingredient is cocoa solids or mass or chocolate liquor, not sugar.

  • Limit yourself to a very small piece of chocolate (a bite-sized piece or about one-third of a bar).

  • Enjoy a berry or small piece of fruit dipped in chocolate.

Remember, white chocolate has virtually no flavonoids. And some confections called “chocolates” are really just a thin shell of chocolate with sugary insides. These are best grouped with other empty-calorie snacks, as they contain little cocoa or flavonoids.

Bottom Line:

if you’re going to have candy of some type – dark chocolate is among the best choices and, in moderation, it can be part of a heart-healthy strategy. So, when you eat that little nip of chocolate, savor and enjoy! And if you are craving more, consider the other flavonoid-rich foods with fewer calories such as grapes, blueberries, strawberries, and spinach. These are smart, colorful and flavorful ways to keep your diet balanced – and your body well!

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