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All Hail Dark Chocolate – 10 Surprising Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate

Who doesn’t love chocolate? It’s the feel-good food we turn to when we’re stressed and a treat that doesn’t necessarily have to curtail our healthy eating efforts.

First off, you’ll only get health benefits from chocolate if you choose wisely. Below are 4 tips to help you choose a healthy chocolate and 10 surprising health benefits of dark chocolate.

4 Tips for Buying Healthy Chocolate:

  • First, choose dark chocolate that is made without milk. Why? The proteins in milk bind to antioxidants making them unavailable to your body, aka they cancel out the health benefits.
  • Second, look for a high % cacao. My goal is 70% or more. Chocolates with high cacao are higher in antioxidants and lower in sugar. Some supposedly dark chocolates are only 50% cacao, which means the remaining 50% is mostly sugar.
  • Read the ingredients – the fewer the better. Avoid buying chocolate with ingredients you cannot pronounce.
  • And finally, buy organic if possible. This ensures the cacao was grown without pesticides, preventing chemicals from being released into the environment and getting into your body.

Two of my favorites are these from Trader Joe’s:

Why I Love It: Smooth Texture, Low Sugar, Not Bitter (even though the cacao % is a whopping 85%), Inexpensive – only $2! On the down side, this one is not organic.

Why I Love It: Organic, Only 2 Simple Ingredients – this is nearly impossible to find as most other chocolates add soy lecithin, vegetable oils or flavorings,  Interesting Texture – crunchy sugar granules, Rich Flavor.

10 Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate:

1. Heart Health – A 9-year study  out of Sweden of over 31,000 women found that 1-2 servings per week of dark chocolate cut the risk for heart failure by 1/3. Flavonoids in chocolate increase flexibility of blood vessels by stimulating nitric oxide production.

2. Stroke – A study in Germany found that a square of dark chocolate each day reduced blood pressure and lowered the risk of heart attack and stroke by 39%.

3. Lowers Cholesterol – Cocoa has been shown to decrease LDL cholesterol and raises HDL (healthy) cholesterol. (But, remember that sugar has been shown to do the opposite – another reason to choose dark chocolate with a high % cacao!)

4. Mood – Cocoa stimulates the brain to release dopamine, a compound which makes us feel happy and calm.

5. Weight Loss – Compared to milk chocolate, dark chocolate is more satiating (filling) and reduces cravings for sweets according to research.

6. Diabetes – Compounds in dark chocolate increase insulin sensitivity, meaning your body is better able to manage blood sugar. In one study, eating a small amount of dark chocolate daily for 15 days improved insulin resistance by 50%. (Keep in mind that even the finest dark chocolate DOES contain sugar, so you want to keep your portion to about 1 ounce to prevent a spike in blood sugar.)

7. Sun Protection – Even I thought this could not be possible, but London researchers found that eating high-flavonol chocolate (aka dark chocolate with a high % cacao) resulted in the study participants being able to spend double the time in the sun before the skin reddened compared to the start of the study.

8. Brain Power – Cocoa boosts blood flow to the brain for up to 3 hours after ingestion, potentially increasing alertness and brain function. Research out of Oxford University on people over 70 years old found that those who ate flavonol-rich foods, including chocolate, scored significantly higher on cognitive tests.

9. Diarrhea Relief – Traditional use of cocoa to prevent and treat diarrhea date back to the 16th century. Now, science confirms tradition. It turns out that cocoa flavonoids bind to a protein that controls fluid secretion in the small intestine.

10. Coughs – Skip the codeine and reach for dark chocolate. One study found theobromine, a compound found in chocolate, to be almost as effective at relieving coughs as codeine.

 

There you go! Now you have an excuse to eat chocolate and feel good about it.

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Lily Nichols is a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, researcher, and author with a passion for evidence-based prenatal nutrition and exercise. Her work is known for being research-focused, thorough, and unapologetically critical of outdated dietary guidelines. She is the author of two bestselling books, Real Food for Pregnancy and Real Food for Gestational Diabetes.

2 Comments

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  1. Nice post, but you might want to consider avoiding the chocolates with soy lecithin in it. Unless it is organic, the soy products are probably GMO. In addition, try buying fair trade chocolate products that help support the local communities that grow the cocoa.

    • I agree with you on both points, Matt. With 94% or more of US grown soy being GMO, I try my best to avoid it, but the soy lecithin is in so many products that are otherwise good, so I’m not perfect about avoiding it 100% of the time. The second chocolate that I pictured does not contain soy lecithin. Here is a database of chocolates that do not contain any soy products. http://www.ceder.net/chocolate/view.php4?action=nosoy

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