For many so-called chocoholics, there’s always an excuse to indulge in their favorite treat. Fortunately, enjoying chocolate doesn’t have to wait for a holiday and it doesn’t have to be unhealthy. Research has shown chocolate can actually be a healthy food choice (for heart and brain health, especially) – if you don’t go overboard. The key is knowing what kind of chocolate is the healthiest and how much is too much.
The Healthy and Not-So-Healthy Side of Chocolate
While researchers are still looking into exactly what compounds in chocolate may promote good health, the findings so far should make chocolate lovers smile. Chocolate is made through an intricate process involving harvesting, fermenting and roasting cocoa beans – and cocoa appears to be the key to its health benefits.
Scientists have found that cocoa flavonols, a distinct class of naturally occurring compounds called flavonoids found in plant-based foods, can positively influence the body’s vascular system.
In fact, numerous studies have demonstrated that cocoa flavonols, which are abundant in dark chocolate, appear to help blood vessels to function better and may help prevent cardiovascular disease, according to a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC). A research team from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and the University of Toronto analyzed data from almost 45,000 people and found that those who ate one serving of chocolate weekly were 22% less likely to have a stroke than those who didn’t eat chocolate. In addition, a study conducted by Harvard Medical School scientists found that cocoa consumption shows promise in reducing the risks of some cancers, too.
So what could be bad about eating chocolate every day? It depends on the form of chocolate and the amount. Chocolate candy can be loaded with diet-busting fat, sugar and calories – and may not contain high levels of the potentially health-boosting cocoa flavonoids.
How to be Smart About Chocolate Indulgence
Eating chocolate in moderation is the only way to make it a common sense, healthy part of your diet. “Before you have a chocolate treat, make sure you’ve eaten all the recommended fruits and vegetables, seven to nine servings, during the day,” Julie Schwartz, a registered dietitian, nutritionist, and owner of Tampa-based Balance Nutrition Coaching, tells Synergy.
She also warns not to simply start munching on a sack of chocolate as a snack– you could get carried away and eat far more than you meant to. “Portion out the amount you plan to eat, then put the rest away,” she says.
Schwartz advises reading labels to make sure you are eating dark chocolate with as little added sugar and fat as possible. The higher the percent of cocoa the more you can consider the chocolate “healthy”.
“Experiment with different chocolates. Try orange infused dark chocolate or cocoa covered nuts. ‘Dust’ fruit with some dark chocolate flakes or drizzle melted chocolate over a big bowl of red raspberries and strawberries for a treat,” she suggests. “You’ll be eating far more fruit than chocolate while enjoying a chocolate-flavored treat.”
Cocoa powder is cocoa without the added fat and sugar and is a great way to add the benefits of flavonols in some unexpected ways to meals, too. “It is a good addition to tomato-based dishes such as chili and stews, adding a hearty but not necessarily sweet flavor,” Schwartz says.
More Healthy Chocolate Indulgence Tips From the National Institutes of Health:
- Eat as dark a chocolate as you can.
- Consider choosing dark chocolate over a less-healthy treat, such as full-fat ice cream.
- Avoid white and milk chocolates and filled chocolates, such as truffles. They are high in calories and lower in flavonols.
- Skip the pre-packaged high fat, sugar loaded hot chocolate mixes. Instead, make hot chocolate with unsweetened cocoa, water or non-fat milk, and a little added sugar.
- Watch your total calories. Chocolate has a lot of calories, and gaining weight will more than wipe out any benefits you might get from the compounds in chocolate.