Is chocolate a healthy indulgence?

Since the cocoa contained in chocolate is derived from a plant, can you consider it a health food?  The answer is maybe. Cocoa products come from a bean rich in flavonoids, substances that are believed to provide a variety of health benefits:

  • Blood pressure – Preliminary research shows a short-term decrease in blood pressure for people who included dark chocolate in their diets.
  • Cholesterol – Flavonoids in cocoa may reduce the dangerous plaque-causing 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 can cause clots inside arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

A recent study found that flavonoids in plant-based foods improved cognitive function in older men and women.  Keep in mind that the studies showing chocolate’s health benefits were relatively small. More extensive research with larger populations is needed to confirm these findings.

Flavonoids give chocolate its dark brown color. Processing, which is necessary to made bitter cocoa beans edible, tends to reduce its antioxidant content. Some types of processing, such as Dutch processing, make chocolate lighter in color and remove more antioxidants. Dark chocolate has the most antioxidants even though it does go through some processing.

Here are some tips on working cocoa-containing products into your diet without adding too many calories:

  • Limit yourself to a small piece of chocolate (a bite-sized piece or about one-third of a bar).
  • Choose dark chocolate (if not heavily processed) and new high-flavonoid chocolate and cocoa products rather than milk chocolate or Dutch processed (alkalized) products.
  • Look at the ingredients. To get the most flavonoids, make sure the first listed ingredient is cocoa solids, cocoa mass, or chocolate liquor  not sugar.
  • Pick a chocolate-flavored product for your calcium supplement.
  • Drink a cup of hot chocolate made with low-fat milk or soy milk. Low-calorie, low-sugar hot chocolates with extra calcium are available.
  • Enjoy a berry or small piece of fruit dipped in chocolate.
  • Remember, white chocolate has virtually no flavonoids.

When you indulge in a bit 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.

This post was adapted from the BWH Health e-Weight website.

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