Chocolate is one of my three favorite foods. (FYI, the others are peanut butter and dark-roasted black coffee. And, oh boy, are these three delights even more delightful together!) My clients and friends often ask me if chocolate is healthy. I sure want it to be. It seems like it can be. Here’s a bit of what we know about the health benefits of chocolate and how you can keep both your delicious treat and your healthy diet whether your concerns are heart health, diabetes management, weight control or healthy aging.
5 Benefits of Chocolate (maybe)
Though the research is murky, there are a number of interesting studies to suggest some health benefits of consuming certain types of chocolate. The following is just a sample of the research.
- Blood pressure: An analysis of several randomized controlled studies found that consuming certain types of chocolate lowered blood pressure a small, but significant, amount. That’s a big plus for your heart!
- Inflammation: Low levels of chronic inflammation frequently precede the onset of chronic health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. One study found lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, among people who consumed dark chocolate compared to those who didn’t eat dark chocolate. In this study, people who ate dark chocolate also had better diets overall. They consumed less meat, refined grains and alcohol and more fish, nuts and seeds.
- Insulin resistance: Chocolate or cocoa may reduce insulin resistance, which is a boon to those with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
- Cognition: Some research has found that more frequent chocolate consumption is related to improvements in certain types of cognitive function in adults.
- Happiness: I don’t need a study for this. For me, eating small amounts of high quality chocolate makes me happy, but only when I eat mindfully. I’m happy when I’m eating it, and I’m happy when I’m done because I know that I can have more tomorrow or another time.
6 Ways to Fit Chocolate into Your Healthy Diet
So the research suggests that chocolate may indeed be good for us. But not all chocolate is healthful. Follow these tips to love the heck out of your chocolate and not ruin your wholesome diet.
- Choose dark dark chocolate. Cocoa beans, from which chocolate is made, contain flavanols. These are the same types of health-boosting compounds in fruits, vegetables, and teas. Sorry, you can’t count chocolate as a serving of fruits or vegetables! Chocolate is much higher in calories and typically much lower in flavanols. But it is these compounds that researchers credit with making chocolate healthy. Unfortunately, not all chocolate – even dark chocolate – is rich in flavanols. Manufacturers often remove them during processing, but you are most likely to find them in dark chocolate. For example, a square of chocolate with 85% cocoa solids will likely have more flavanols than a square with only 72% cocoa solids. White chocolate has none because white chocolate is made with cocoa butter, not cocoa solids, which provide all of the flavanols.
- Choose the right cocoa powder. Skip the Dutched cocoa or cocoa processed with alkali. This type of processing destroys the health-boosting flavanols.
- Enjoy your chocolate plain or with nuts and fruit. Skip the ooey-gooey add-ins. Fillings like caramel, nougat and raspberry cream bring with them loads of calories, added sugars and saturated fats. Nuts and fruits bring an army of disease fighters. Try my chocolate-dipped apricots and my chocolate peanut butter oat balls. You’ll love them.
- Make swaps. Yes, it looks like chocolate can be good for us, but not if it causes us to pack on the pounds or if it raises blood sugar for people with diabetes. An ounce of chocolate rings in at about 170 calories and 13 grams of carbohydrate, so don’t simply add it to your diet. Instead replace less wholesome foods like brownies, donuts and fried onion rings with a small bit of dark chocolate.
- Skip the baked goods. Cookies, cakes and brownies – even if made with dark chocolate – will weigh you down with more calories, blood sugar-raising carbs and unhealthful saturated fats than we can really justify for more than just a now and then indulgence. Frosted cupcakes provide several hundred calories, but 6 or so chocolate-covered almonds (my fave) give us just about 150 calories. Plus, the research suggests that dark chocolate candy might be good for us. There’s no research to suggest that cookies and cakes boost health.
- Stop feeling guilty. What’s the point of eating something if it makes you feel guilty or regretful? A little bit of deliciousness is nothing to feel guilty about anyway – even if it’s total junk like a cream-filled donut. Just stick to small portions and balance the rest of your diet with wholesome foods. Sit down, pay attention to your food and love the living daylights out of it. Good advice, no matter what you’re eating.
Bottom line: It’s okay to enjoy small portions of dark chocolate. But don’t expect magical powers from it. Your total diet matters.
Do you have a favorite way to eat dark chocolate?