The Sweet Truth: How Chocolate Can Boost Your Health
Don’t stress and enjoy a little chocolate this Valentine’s season and the happiness and love that comes with it.
If you love the rich flavor of chocolate, you’re definitely not alone. Chocolate has a long history, and archaeological evidence shows that humans have been enjoying cacao, the most raw form of chocolate, for over 5,000 years! In what is now Central America and Mexico, the Mayan and Aztec civilizations used a hot bitter drink made of cacao and water for rituals and medicinal purposes. The beans were so precious, they were even used as a form of currency. Later on, the Spanish Conquistadors added sugar and spices to sweeten the drink, and brought cacao back to Europe where it spread to the West. Today, the sweetened, more processed solid version is our modern chocolate. We grow cacao in the Philippines too!
Cacao, Cocoa, and Chocolate: What’s the Difference?
There are a few terms to know when talking about chocolate. Chocolate is made from the beans of the cacao tree. The beans are taken from the pods and fermented to develop flavor, dried, then roasted for even more flavor. Once roasted, the cacao becomes cocoa, which contains most of the nutrients, and results in ‘nibs,’ which can be made into cocoa butter and powder. Chocolate is made when cocoa powder, cocoa butter, and sugar, and sometimes milk are combined.
Especially this February, heart month, a little bit of chocolate is a delicious and fun way to boost your health!
5 Reasons to Eat Chocolate
1. Heart Health
You might have heard that cocoa contains a high concentration of flavonoids, a plant chemical that has antioxidant properties, which help repair damage to our cells. So foods like chocolate may be anti-inflammatory, help improve blood flow, lower cholesterol levels, and so protect our heart and blood vessels. Cocoa also contains potassium and magnesium, which are important nutrients for healthy blood pressure.
2. Better Blood Sugar Control
Because the antioxidants in cocoa protect and repair cells, they can also help your cells use insulin better. Studies show improvements in blood sugar levels, insulin resistance, and possibly even prevention of type 2 diabetes. It’s worth noting that a lot of studies use unsweetened cocoa powder, and many commercial chocolates have a high amount of added sugar which may counter the benefits.
3. Brain Health and Good Mood
There might be a scientific reason you reach for chocolate when feeling sad or stressed. Eating chocolate is pleasurable and releases endorphins, but also, there are a few other mood-boosting compounds. The flavonoids might improve blood flow to the brain, which may have positive effects on cognitive function and mood. And magnesium is also connected to improved mood and a feeling of calmness. Chocolate also contains compounds like caffeine and theobromine, which are stimulants and can boost mood, as well as phenylethylamine, which stimulates the release of dopamine, and tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin. Cocoa even contains a good amount of fiber, which some studies show benefits for gut health, which supports the creation of even more serotonin, our happy hormone.
4. Better Energy and Immune Health
Do you know that cocoa powder contains more iron than beef?! One hundred grams of cocoa contains about 14g of iron, whereas 100 grams of beef contains about 4 grams, although typically animal sources are more easily absorbed. You probably won’t replace meat with chocolate, but it is another food source to consider to meet (no pun intended!) your needs. Our immune cells also need iron, and eating enough can help prevent us from getting sick. It’s also a crucial mineral for producing red blood cells, which helps keep oxygen circulating in your blood so you feel energized. And because food cravings are sometimes thought to be a sign of your body needing something, either physical or mental, you may have experienced chocolate cravings at that time of the month, when the female body uses more iron to produce blood.
5. Because it’s Delicious
Food does not always need to be nutritious, be used as fuel, or have health benefits. It’s really okay to enjoy eating and have favorite foods as part of a balanced diet. It’s much healthier to eat something and satisfy a craving than to stress over the food, or try to eat something else that doesn't hit the spot, so you still feel deprived.
How to Choose Your Chocolate
Remember that the type of chocolate you eat still matters if you’re trying to get the health benefits. Choose chocolate that is higher-quality and has a higher percentage of cocoa, look for at least 70%. And check the list of ingredients and notice if cocoa is one of the first ingredients as ingredients are listed by weight, or if the product is mostly sugar or other filler ingredients.
You can also incorporate cacao nibs into baking at home. I love cacao nibs in oatmeal or overnight oats, or homemade cookies. One of my favorite ways to start a day is with a cup of unsweetened cocoa or cacao powder and some milk or plant-based milk for a homemade hot chocolate.
You don’t need to eat large amounts of chocolate to gain the health benefits, and of course for health, your overall diet still matters. So don’t stress and enjoy a little chocolate this Valentine’s season and the happiness and love that comes with it. I definitely will be!
Chella Po, MS, RD is a New York City-trained US registered dietitian who can be found on Instagram as @betterbeing.ph. She uses science to back up her professional advice for clients seeking to create a sustainable, healthy diet without counting calories, restrictive plans, or stress! Contact her for a free discovery call today.