Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dark Chocolate, the Superfood

I wasn’t always the chocolate-obsessed woman you see before you today. In my youth, I would invariably choose a fruit pie over chocolate. I even wondered what the hoo-ha was about chocolate. Then menopause hit me with a tsunami of chocolate lust. I have never looked back. Dark chocolate (at least 70% cacao) is the most important meal of my day.

Happily, dark chocolate has miraculous health benefits, which I am about to share with you; but before that, some key qualifiers. First, let’s be clear that when I say dark chocolate I mean good quality, organic, at least 70% cacao (the darker the better) chocolate. Second, to gain the health benefits of chocolate, you should limit consumption to no more than an ounce a day. The lower the sugar content the better, and don’t buy chocolate made with milk. Buy organic chocolate only. Commercial chocolate not only contains toxic substances, but it does not contain cocoa sourced from sustainable farming that provides for the preservation of the land and a fair livelihood for the farmers. Inorganic chocolate = exploitation.

That said, why is dark chocolate good for your health?

The sugar added to chocolate masks cocoa’s inherently bitter taste, and bitter foods (like kale and arugula) are super-strong antioxidants. Many of the health benefits of dark chocolate stem from the antioxidant flavonoids it contains. Chocolate comes from the cacao plant, which is extraordinarily rich in flavanols, a type of phytochemical that is a powerful antioxidant and a terrific anti-inflammatory. Two of the main causes for disease and aging are oxidation and inflammation. Oxidation, the result of oxidative stress, has many instigators, including toxins in the environment as well as the toxic load we carry from stress, anxiety, and depression. Chocolate is high in certain flavanols, which are also found in green tea, apples, grapes, and berries. Dark chocolate keeps good company. Let’s look at some specifics.

Dark chocolate has a positive impact on our neurotransmitters that regulate mood and sleep. It’s not surprising that dark chocolate improves sleep, since it contains a large amount of magnesium, a mineral that increases the body’s ability to engage in restorative sleep. However, the caffeine in chocolate may keep some people awake. I can’t eat chocolate any later in the day than 1:00 PM or it keeps me awake at night. That’s a good thing for me since it prevents me from eating more than a few squares of dark chocolate a day.

Dark chocolate protects against heart disease, lowering the risk for heart attack and stroke. It releases a chemical messenger (nitric oxide) that improves arterial blood flow, increases arterial dilation, and reduces platelet clumping. It is important to know that the casein in milk prevents the absorption of dark chocolate’s flavanols. This is why you should not eat chocolate with milk in it or eat chocolate alongside milk. Dark chocolate also protects the heart because of the way it is digested, which will be discussed below.

Dark chocolate lowers blood pressure, according to a recent study conducted in Italy. Study participants ate three ounces of dark chocolate daily. A control group of similarly healthy people ate the same amount of white chocolate. Dark chocolate contains flavanols and white chocolate does not. The people who ate the dark chocolate had a significantly lower systolic blood pressure reading after fifteen days of eating the chocolate.

Dark chocolate decreases insulin resistance, a critical risk factor for Type II diabetes. Cocoa improves insulin sensitivity according to research published in Endocrine Abstracts (Farhat, 2014). Dark chocolate improved insulin sensitivity even in people who did not have diabetes. The study concluded that eating a little dark chocolate every day might significantly contribute to the delay or prevention of the onset of diabetes in pre-diabetics. Furthermore, researchers (Mellor, Sathyapalan, Kilpatrick, Beckett, and Atkin, 2010) discovered that one ounce daily of dark chocolate improved the arterial health of diabetics by increasing HDL (“good cholesterol”), without affecting weight, insulin resistance, glycemic control, or inflammatory markers. Furthermore, in another study, researchers (Yasuda, Natsume, Osakabe, Kawahata, and Koga, 2011) found that dark chocolate consumption lowered LDL (“bad cholesterol”).

Dark chocolate improves mood and reduces depression. People suffering from depression often crave chocolate, and for good reason. The impact that the flavanols in dark chocolate have on neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin) can make us feel better and more positive. Evidence-based research shows that dark chocolate decreases depression (Bunce, 2007). It creates the amino acid tyrosine, which is a precursor to a chemical cascade that results in feelings of euphoria (Ross, 2002).

Dark chocolate is helpful for people with chronic fatigue syndrome. In a small study in England, 1½ ounces of 85% cocoa dark chocolate was given to a group of participants with chronic fatigue syndrome every day for eight weeks. Participants reported feeling less fatigued after eating the chocolate.

Dark chocolate can alleviate the discomfort of PMS. It releases calming endorphins that reduce anxiety. The high magnesium content can lift mood, reduce water retention, and reduce cramping.

Dark chocolate improves the ecology of our digestive tract and contributes to a strong immune system. Dark chocolate is loaded with fiber and is therefore largely indigestible. Undigested cocoa fiber ferments in the gut and releases substances that feed beneficial gut microbes, including probiotics (e.g., lactobacillus, which is also found in yogurt). The numbers of beneficial probiotics increase in the gut after the introduction of cocoa; while undesirable microbes, like staphylococcus, decline in the presence of cocoa fiber. (Reynolds, 2014). Coming down with a cold? Eat dark chocolate! You have to love this.

The dynamics of how the digestive tract processes cocoa is fascinating and has a larger impact than simply building the immune system. Dark chocolate is good for your heart because of that fermentation of cocoa fiber by gut bacteria, creating anti-inflammatory compounds that improve blood vessel function. Researcher Katherine Harmon Courage writes (March 2014) that research suggests that beneficial bacteria that reside toward the end of our digestive tract ferment both the antioxidants and the fiber in cocoa. These microbes create the anti-inflammatory compounds that are linked to the ways in which dark chocolate benefits cardiovascular health. Magic. OK, science. But isn’t science magical?

Eating a little dark chocolate every day may improve thought processes of people with mild cognitive impairment, according to a study in Neurology Journal (Aug. 2013). Dark chocolate has been shown to keep the aging brain sharp, warding off dementia, by increasing blood flow to the brain. Moreover, its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties are virtually unmatched for enhancing cognition for people of all ages and in all stages of health.

Forget the cod liver oil, I'm bringing home the dark chocolate. But before we get carried away (oh yeah, dark chocolate causes euphoria), remember the rules about eating chocolate:  1) at least 70% cacao (the darker the better), 2) no milk in it or with it, 3) 100% organic (made with an organic sweetener too), 4) the less sugar in it the better, 5) eat in moderation (about an ounce a day). I play by the rules and I savor my daily dose. Me and my good-quality dark chocolate, we're going to live to be a hundred together, sharp as ever, blogging onward. Yum.

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