How To Understand the Health Benefits of Chocolate

As teenagers, many of us became familiar with the common refrain from our mothers: "Stop eating that junk food!  It's just going to make those pimples worse!"  But more recently, the entire medical community seemed to converge on the notion that chocolate might be more beneficial than detrimental after all.  Was Nestle behind all those news reports, or does chocolate carry significant health benefit?

  1. Reach for the dark chocolate.  To answer the previous question, the health benefits of chocolate depend on the kind of chocolate you're eating as well as the amount.  Milk chocolate will be fattier and less healthy, because it has more dairy and less cocoa.  The health benefits of chocolate are all locked up in the cocoa, so go for the darkest bar you can find and read on.
  2. Blissful experience?  Anandamide, a neurotransmitter found in chocolate, is partially derived from the Sanskrit word for "bliss," and why not?  Anandamide can trigger mild sensations of pleasure. 
  3. Calm tranquility.  Chocolate contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid that we normally associate with Thanksgiving turkey (though tryptophan levels in turkey are no higher than in chicken).  Tryptophan has been shown to lighten mood, prompt relaxation and help get people to sleep.  The tryptophan in chocolate can cause the brain to release a low level of serotonin, which promotes calm as long as it isn't overabundant. 
  4. Love.  We're probably all aware of the connection between chocolate and love; they're connected not only by recent medical research, but also by decades of dating ritual.  While chocolate contains a small amount of phenylethylamine, which is a natural amphetamine that can act as a sexual stimulant, the amount is too low to elicit that effect.  Part of the connection may simply depend on one's affinity for chocolate; people who dislike chocolate (bizarre though it may seem, they do exist) wouldn't feel a heightened romantic urge after receiving chocolate as a gift. 
  5. Antioxidants - the most substantive health benefit of chocolate yet.  Cocoa is rich in antioxidant flavonoids.  Some studies suggest that the antioxidant power of cocoa rivals that of green tea!  Whether or not this is true, chocolate indeed contains antioxidants that might prevent harmful oxidation of LDL cholesterol.

    Not only that, but some evidence suggests that these flavonoids might also help prevent cancer in the colon and breasts.  Conclusive facts about chocolate's cancer-fighting potential require more research.  There is neither a shortage of research projects nor a shortage of willing test subjects, so keep your eyes peeled for news about chocolate.

Now let's dispel a few myths.

  • Chocolate is bad for you.  This is one of those dangerous half-truths.  Chocolate becomes more of a junk food the further it strays from pure chocolate.  In other words, the darker it is, the better it is.  Milk chocolate is fattier and delivers far less of the antioxidants than dark chocolate.  But no matter what kind of chocolate you eat, you shouldn't eat much of it.
  • Chocolate causes acne.  Pure chocolate doesn't cause acne.  In fact, the antioxidants in chocolate can help you achieve healthier skin!  Once again, the milk mixed into the chocolate makes the chocolate fattier, thereby leading to a greasier face and more acne.
  • Chocolate can cause cardiovascular problems.  Many consider chocolate to be a source of cardiovascular problems, rather than a potential contributor to cardio health.  Partially, chocolate owes its bad reputation to saturated fat.  While saturated fat deserves its reputation to an extent, the kind of saturated fat present in chocolate (stearic acid) hasn't been shown to raise cholesterol levels in the bloodstream.  Not only that, but chocolate's antioxidant flavonoids, as mentioned previously, can help to prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol.  Combine that with an ability to keep platelet activity at a healthier level, and it would appear that moderate chocolate consumption might be good for your heart after all.

Moderation... that and darkness are the two requisites for healthy chocolate consumption.  Don't make it too milky, and don't eat it in copious amounts!  Many research results are based on a level of chocolate consumption that would be unhealthy as part of the diet of a normal individual; in other words, it's possible that you will experience little benefit from chocolate by sticking to a moderate amount.  However, any benefits of chocolate will be lost if you become overweight through over-consumption of the high-calorie food.  In the future, diabetics might take pills made from cocoa flavonoids.  For now, rest assured that, hidden within your dark chocolate bar, there are more beneficial nutrients than one would think, and fewer harmful ingredients as well.

 

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