When it comes to chocolate as a health food, it depends entirely which type of chocolate we’re talking about. What is healthy in chocolate is the cocoa content (Theobroma cacao), not the sugar content. Most milk chocolate has a very low cocoa content and is very sweet due to a high content of simple sugar. As many of us probably know, simple sugar is very unhealthy. It leads to obesity, high blood pressure and ultimately to the development of diabetes type 2. Therefore the first thing to consider when buying chocolate is what the cocoa content vs. sugar content is. You want chocolate to have at least a 70% cocoa content, so in other words a “dark” or “bitter” chocolate.
Why is Cocoa Healthy for Us?
Cocoa contains a very high level of health benefiting compounds called flavonoids. These compounds are also found in high concentrations in fruits and vegetables. They are beneficial because of their anti-oxidant action. In other words, they protect our bodies from the damaging effects of oxidation. Oxidation happens for many reasons, including the oxygen we breathe (which obviously cannot be avoided). We all know we can't live without oxygen, but unfortunately the air we breathe is not entirely healthy. Thus it makes sense to protect ourselves from this effect by ingesting flavonoids, such as those found in dark chocolate. Other causes of oxidation are pollutants (such as pollutants in air, water and food, as well as cigarette smoke, alcohol, UV radiation from the sun, etc.). Basically, oxidation damages our cell membranes and our DNA. This leads to premature aging, skin damage, other tissue damage, organ damage and even mutations that can lead to cancer or many chronic inflammatory diseases (diabetes or cardiovascular disease, for example). Therefore flavonoids which curtail oxidation are very healthy for us. The best part is that dark chocolate contains one of the highest levels of these benefiting molecules.
Other Health Benefits of Chocolate
Cocoa contains high levels of magnesium. Magnesium has a calming effect, allowing our muscles to relax and helps us sleep and rest better. It also lowers blood pressure. This has been taken advantage of in the treatment of pre-eclampsia, a serious medical condition during pregnancy when the blood pressure is very high and threatens the well-being of the baby and the mother.
Chocolate also happens to release endorphins. These are pleasure molecules that enhance the mood, protect from depression, make us feel pleasure and decrease the sensation of pain. They are the same molecules responsible for the “runners high,” which is the elevated and very pleasant mood experienced by long distance runners.
As a final note, it’s important to know that chocolate milk or milk chocolate actually prevents the absorption of these benefiting molecules from cocoa. So stick to dark chocolate without the milk. If you like drinking plain milk, make sure to consume it a few hours before or after eating chocolate.
See you next time.