With the holidays right around the corner, I thought I’d take the opportunity to highlight a decadent food that, for many of my clients, is as much a source of pleasure as it is a source guilt.
Well, guilt no more! Luckily this tasty treat has, as of late, benefited from a rise in popularity. An that holds true for media and the research community alike. The heart-healthy, brain-boosting, cold-fighting chocolate-related research findings sure help fuel the frenzy.
But the question remains; does this yummy treat live up to all the hype?
The short answer is: it depends. Notedly, on the touted benefit as well as on the type of chocolate.
Read further to get the whole story!
Good Chocolate vs. Bad Chocolate
Wondering what’s so good about chocolate? Besides its delicious taste, chocolate is rich in two other compounds; flavonoids and theobromine. These compounds are the ones believed to give chocolate its healthful edge.
The catch? Not all chocolate is made equal! Cacao, the main ingredient found in chocolate, is, on its own, bitter, chalky and definitely not everyone’s cup of tea! This is why the likes of milk, sugar and butter are frequently added to the mix. Arguably, these additions counterbalance some of the potential positive health effects.
Most research looking into chocolate’s benefits is performed using high cocoa flavanol doses. For this reason, to increase your chances of getting similar benefits as those described below, it’s best to stick to the high-quality stuff. By that, I mean chocolate with at least 70% cacao. The higher the cacao content, the more likely you are to reap some of the benefits by eating just a small amount.
Curious to know which benefits I’m referring to? Here they are:
1. Lowers Your Risk Of Stroke
Apparently, chocolate can decrease risk of stroke by up to a third! Is that so? Let’s take a moment to dissect this claim! This popular affirmation originates from a study that followed around a little more than 37 000 Swedish men during a period of approximately 10 years. They found that those who consumed the most chocolate had a 14% lower risk of stroke.
But don’t get fooled into thinking that this means that eating chocolate leads to a lower risk of stroke. This type of study only shows that two things are related, not that one causes the other.
For instance, in this study, those who consumed the most chocolate also tended to be slightly leaner and eat more fruits and vegetables than those who ate less of the sweet treat. So is it the higher chocolate dose or the participant’s general health-promoting behaviours that drove the association? With this type of study, your guess is as good as mine!
2. A Healthier Heart
Chocolate sure is a popular remedy for the mending of a broken heart. That’s, however, not what I’m referring to. Over the past years, more and more research has emerged touting the benefits of the flavonoids found in chocolate (chocolate flavanols to be precise) on measures associated with heart health such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
For instance, a fairly recent review of placebo-controlled randomized trials (a.k.a. the strongest level of research currently identified) pooled results from 42 short to long-term trials comprising over 1297 participants. The researchers were able to link chronic (but not acute) chocolate consumption to lower blood pressure. What’s more, marginal positive effects on cholesterol were also reported.
But before you go out to binge on a full-fledged chocolate fondue meal, it might be worth noting that the effects are minor. Researchers are talking about a ± 4mmHg decrease in blood pressure and a ± 0.2mmol/L reduction in cholesterol. None the less, these changes may predict a significantly lower 10-year risk of heart disease.
3. Weight Loss
Can chocolate really help you fight the flab? As surprising as this sounds, it actually might, as long as it’s dark!
Here’s some proof. A study dating back from 2011 published in the journal Nutrition and Diabetes gave 16 young healthy normal-weight men 100g of either milk or dark chocolate 2 hours before being served an all-you-can-eat-style lunch. In the 2 hours preceding lunch, participants reported feeling more satiated, less hungry after eating the dark versus the milk chocolate. Their desire to eat something sweet, fatty or savory was also reported as weaker. What’s more, when meal time came around, the dark-chocolate group ended up consuming 8% less calories than their counterparts.
Perhaps even more interestingly, just the act of smelling chocolate may have equivalent effects! This clever study found that satiation levels increased equally after eating 30g of dark melted chocolate or after simply smelling it. What’s more, appetite scores decreased similarly after smelling the chocolate or eating it. Apparently, the act of smelling the chocolate is sufficient to activate ghrelin, one of the appetite-regulating hormones.
4. Reduces Stress
Most of us are acutely aware of the tendency to crave sweets (including chocolate) when stressed. But did you know that the relationship can work both ways?
A study conducted in Switzerland (out of all places) and published in the Journal of Proteome Research found that chocolate can help keep you calm and collected. The Swiss researchers fed 30 healthy adults, some of which were highly anxious, 40g of dark chocolate everyday for a two-week period. They then took a look at the effect this had on the participants’ stress-response. Firstly, researchers first observed that participants with higher anxiety traits showed a distinctly different metabolism (i.e. different hormone levels and gut bacteria) than their less-anxious counterparts.
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