A Sweet

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Real benefits to eating dark chocolate-in moderation

By Dr. Cynthia Paulis

It's that time of year again, when friends and family get together to celebrate the holidays and your diet gets ditched as you indulge in all of the wonderful and fattening treats of the season. But before you despair, there is actually one treat that is good for you: dark chocolate.

For centuries, chocolate was revered more for its medicinal qualities than its taste. Aztecs reserved chocolate (which was usually consumed in liquid form) for priests and the very wealthy, but it was also given to soldiers because it was believed to make them strong.

When the Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés arrived in the court of Aztec ruler Montezuma in 1529, he was impressed by the magical drink and returned to Europe with trunkloads of cocoa beans, writing to the King of Spain that he had found a drink that built up resistance and fought fatigue.

The drink was quickly viewed as a cure-all, with eventually more than 100 medicinal uses for chocolate. In one document dating from 1590, a mixture of cacao beans, maize and herbs was used to reduce fever and panting and treat heart ailments. They even used it in baths, which were thought to cure fatigue in government officials and those who held public office. Maybe that's what our Congress needs today!

In the 1800s, chocolate was given to pregnant women, since it was believed to help nourish the mother and child. Even Thomas Jefferson was quoted as saying, "The superiority of chocolate, both for health and nourishment, will soon give it the preference over tea and coffee in America which it has in Spain." Soon, chocolate had sugar and milk added to it, taking away its medicinal qualities. At one point, Milton Hershey, the founder of Hershey Chocolate Company, advertised his milk chocolate bar as: "Hershey's: More sustaining than meat."

So why is dark chocolate so special? Chocolate is made from the cacao bean, which grows on the plant Theobroma cacao. The solid part of the bean is roasted and ground to a powder. Cacao powder, if not too sweetened, has anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. The cacao has flavonoids that have antioxidants, enzymes capable of neutralizing the damaging effects of toxins in the body. One ounce of dark chocolate or cocoa has more antioxidants than blueberries, green tea or red wine.

Studies at the Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic have shown that these flavonoids can improve blood flow and keep vessels healthy. One square of dark chocolate can benefit the cardiovascular system by enhancing blood flow and lowering blood pressure by two points. It can also prevent the buildup of plaque that can block arteries, and it possesses mild anti-blood clotting effects. Dark chocolate has also been known to lower LDL (bad) cholesterol by as much as five points.

Cocoa may have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels because it consists mainly of good fat, mono or polyunsaturated fat in the form of stearic acid and oleic acid, the same fat that is found in olive oil.

Chocolate and cocoa contain copper, magnesium, iron and potassium, which are essential for good health. An average bar of dark chocolate has 4 percent of the daily requirement of copper, a mineral critical to the absorption of iron and key in skin-strengthening collagen. Copper also helps the heart.

Magnesium reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. One bar of dark chocolate can deliver 12 percent of your daily requirement. Magnesium deficiency can lead to leg cramps, migraines, fatigue, loss of appetite, depression, nausea and vomiting. In addition, an average bar of dark chocolate can deliver up to 7 percent of the amount of iron a body needs. Iron is essential for carrying oxygen to parts of your body. If you are low in iron, you can become anemic, fatigued, irritable and prone to headaches. Chocolate also contains potassium, a key element in lowering blood pressure and preventing strokes.

Chocolate also contains more than 500 natural chemical compounds that are mood-elevating and pleasure-inducing. One of these is theobromine, a mild stimulant similar to caffeine but not as strong. It has been used in medicines as a cough suppressant. Chocolate also releases mood-elevating chemicals known as endorphins and serotonin in your brain. Eating chocolate really does make you feel good!

Chocolate maker Marilyn Maguinness has a less scientific view of its benefits. "It gives you a good feeling when you get chocolate, roses or a box of candy," she said. "I have heard that the dark chocolate is actually good for women, for their hearts, so I think you should eat chocolate every day."

Remember that chocolate is still loaded with calories and fat, so limit your consumption to just one square a day. Look for chocolate that is at least 60 percent cacao; the higher the cacao number, the lower the sugar. A 75 percent cacao bar is 25 percent sugar, while a 65 percent cacao bar is 35 percent sugar.

Milk chocolate and white chocolate have no health benefits. Avoid drinking milk with dark chocolate because it binds with the antioxidants, making them unavailable.

When the big man in the red suit comes calling this month, instead of leaving cookies loaded with saturated fats, leave him a few squares of dark chocolate. Don't forget some carrots for the reindeer, loaded with vitamin A, which are good for their night vision!

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