Give in to your dark chocolate cravings…and not just today on Halloween

Don’t worry about keeping your hands out of the trick-or-treat goodies tonight. In fact, I recommend you go ahead and give into your chocolate craving–and not just on special occasions like Halloween. Plenty of research shows indulging in chocolate several times a week has plenty of health benefits. Including one that might surprise you.

It turns out that chocolate might just help you maintain a healthier body weight. In fact, several studies now link eating chocolate to lower obesity and body mass index (BMI).

One good study on chocolate and body weight came out of the University of California, San Diego about two years ago. For this study, researchers followed about 1,000 healthy adults. They found that men and women who ate moderate amounts of chocolate five days per week had a lower BMI than those who strictly avoided chocolate. Interestingly, the chocolate-lovers ate more total calories and exercised less…yet they still maintained lower BMIs.

In a similar study at the University of Grenada, Spain, researchers found that adolescents who ate the most chocolate also had lower BMIs than those who ate little chocolate.

In both studies, the researchers attributed the chocolate-eaters success to the catechins found in chocolate. Catechins are antioxidants that appear to help improve lean muscle mass and reduce weight. And dark chocolate contains more of these beneficial catechins. Related natural sources like coffee and tea also contain these potent antioxidants.

Of course, chocolate has a host of other benefits…

Research shows compounds in chocolate, such as polyphenols, help improve circulation and prevent blood clots. So, men and women who eat chocolate tend to have fewer cardiovascular problems.

In fact, about four years ago, researchers studied the effects of eating just two ounces of chocolate per day among 20,000 people in Germany. Turns out these chocolate eaters reduced their risk of heart attack and stroke by a whopping 39 percent.

A large review of seven previously published studies on chocolate appeared in the British Medical Journal a few years back. In that review, researchers found men and women who ate the most chocolate had a 29 percent reduced risk of stroke compared to those who ate the least amount of chocolate. Plus, they had a 37 percent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

In a 2011 Swedish study, women who ate 1.5 ounces or more of chocolate per week reduced their risk of stroke by 20 percent compared to women who ate less than a third of an ounce every week. And in a 10-year study out of Australia, researchers found that older women who ate chocolate at least once a week reduced their heart disease mortality by 60 percent.

Eating chocolate regularly may even help diabetics control their blood sugar. Chocolate is rich in flavonoids, which help reduce insulin resistance. And in an Italian study, researchers found that chocolate increases the metabolism of glucose in the blood, which would increase insulin sensitivity and reduce the risk of Type II diabetes.

We even have some good news about chocolate and colon cancer. In a lab study, researchers exposed animals to carcinogens. But the animals fed 12 percent cacao for eight weeks had fewer occurrences of colon cancer. The researchers believe chocolate’s high polyphenol content is responsible for its anti-cancer effects.

And last but not least, chocolate is good for the brain. In one study, older men and women with mild cognitive impairment who drank a dairy-based cocoa drink showed significant improvement in memory after just eight weeks. Researchers believe flavanols protect nerve cells, improve transmission of brain signals, and increase blood circulation and flow to brain tissue.

Of course, I always recommend dark chocolate without the fat and sugar of “milk” chocolate. After the Spanish brought chocolate back to Europe from the Americas in the 1500s, the Dutch learned to separate the chocolate from the oil and fats (cocoa butter). What remained was a superior chocolate powder that could be used in beverages. This powder was ideal for drinks, since the oil fat does not mix with water.

By the 1800s, confectioners like Cadbury in the U.K. and Hershey in the U.S. started to put the cocoa butter fat back in with the cocoa powder. They also added sugar to make the hard chocolate candy bars and “kisses.”

Today, you find a range of chocolates on grocery store shelves–from milk chocolate with relatively low cacao content to dark chocolate with up to 85 percent cacao.

You’ll probably be surprised by how much you enjoy dark chocolate. In fact, in one interesting study, blindfolded subjects found dark chocolate just as tasty as milk chocolate.  Plus, dark chocolate is lower in calories and higher in all the beneficial compounds I mentioned earlier.

So give dark chocolate a try. And not just on Halloween. Make dark chocolate your go-to, after-dinner treat a few nights a week. You may find your waistband feels a little looser. Your heart will benefit. And your brain too!

Sources:

  1. “Association Between More Frequent Chocolate Consumption and Lower Body Mass Index,” Archives of Internal Medicine, 2012; 172 (6): 519
  1. “Chocolate consumption in relation to blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease in German adults,” European Heart Journal, first published online: 30 March 2010
  2.  “Habitual chocolate intake and vascular disease: a prospective study of clinical outcomes in older women,” Arch Intern Med. 2010 Nov 8;170(20):1857-8
  1. “Chocolate consumption and cardiometabolic disorders: systematic review and meta-analysis,” BMJ 2011;343:d4488
  1. “Chocolate Consumption and Risk of Stroke in Women,” J Am Coll Cardiol. 2011;58(17):1828-1829

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