Sweet and Smart: The Health Benefits of ChocolateFeb. 13, 2020
Whether it's on top of ice cream, filled with peanut butter or inside a cookie, chocolate is how many people satisfy a sweet tooth. Stirring the souls of chocolate lovers is cutting-edge research demonstrating the health benefits of chocolate. But is this research true?
Nathalie Sessions, wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist, says the research is correct. Small amounts of dark chocolate are beneficial — but it's not intended to be a daily component of your eating plan.
But first, not just any chocolate is healthy
Sessions says that for chocolate to come with health benefits, it must be 70% cacao or higher, and low in sugar. A milk chocolate bar may contain as little as 10% cacao, while a dark chocolate bar could contain up to 90%.
Dark chocolate has about half the sugar of milk chocolate, making it more satisfying (meaning you eat less of it). In addition, the added sugar in milk chocolate can mask other flavors and leave you craving more.
Dark chocolate also has more fiber and minerals than milk chocolate. And the benefits don't stop there.
Chocolate is a good source of antioxidants
Cacao, the raw form of chocolate, contains antioxidants. In fact, cacao is a top scorer on the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) scale, which attempts to quantify antioxidant levels in foods.
Antioxidants are powerful molecules that can help:
- Lower blood pressure
- Protect the brain
- Increase blood circulation
The best sources are cacao powder or cacao nibs, which can be used for recipes in place of regular chocolate chips or added to foods such as smoothies.
Chocolate improves brain function
Chocolate contains the chemical compounds phenylethylamine ("the love compound") and serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps calm us) — both are naturally occurring substances in the body that evoke feelings of euphoria.
Chocolate reduces stress
Chocolate contains flavanols, which are naturally occurring chemical compounds found in cocoa and other plant-based foods that can lower stress-causing cortisol levels in the blood. Enjoying a small piece of good-quality dark chocolate right before a stressful event can be an excellent strategy to help curb anxiety.
Chocolate is a healthy treat — when eaten in moderation
Sessions suggests thinking of dark chocolate as a conscious indulgence that you eat sparingly in small amounts. So the next time you bite into some dark chocolate, savor it — and know it's good for you!
"Good-quality dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao (70% or more) is still calorie-dense and, therefore, is not intended to be a daily component of our meal plans," Sessions says. "As with all foods, practicing moderation and mindfulness are recommended to get the full benefit and enjoyment out of eating. Eat it slowly, and enjoy all the flavors, textures and taste sensations."