Chocolate Unwrapped

How this sweet treat can boost your heart health

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, boxes of chocolate will lurk around every corner: in our homes, offices and supermarkets. Although chocolate is adored by people all over the world, those of us watching our waistlines have a love-hate relationship with it. The good news is that chocolate boasts many potential health benefits when consumed in moderation. Sadly, it is also quite calorie-dense and can deliver a good deal of saturated fat and cholesterol. To help you enjoy it without blowing your diet, I’ve put together all you ever needed to know about chocolate.

Smart indulgence

A few years ago, chocolate and cocoa were being hyped as health foods with endless benefits. The hype has since quieted, but there are still a few findings that lead nutritionists and scientists to believe chocolate does hold a place in a well-balanced, healthy diet — in particular, dark chocolate and cocoa.

Nutrient powerhouses: You probably never thought about it, but chocolate comes from plants. And this plant origin makes chocolate rich in antioxidants, namely polyphenols, which are the same substances found in red wine and green tea. In fact, chocolate contains just as many antioxidants as many fruits and vegetables. Chocolate also contains flavonoids, which are believed to reduce blood clotting and the risk of coronary artery blockages.

Balance of sugar and fat: Unlike many other sweet indulgences, chocolate has a good balance of sugar and fat, which helps control your blood sugar and avoid the sugar highs and lows you get from sugar-based candy — jelly beans and gummy bears, for example. These high-glycemic-index foods give you a brief surge of energy but cause you to feel hungry again a few minutes later. Chocolate, which is lower on the glycemic index, is more apt to leave you feeling satisfied because of the fat content, which slows your digestion, and causes you to feel full longer.

Fights depression: Cocoa and dark chocolate also contain compounds that are believed to improve your mood and feelings of well-being. Some of these compounds include serotonin, which acts as an antidepressant, and caffeine and theobromine, which are stimulants and are also believed to increase feelings of well-being, similar to coffee and tea.

Daily dose

I would advise that most people consume no more than 100 calories per day from chocolate and that these 100 calories come from dark chocolate, preferably with at least 65% cocoa. This type of chocolate is most often imported, but some new domestic brands are catching on and are making chocolates with higher concentrations of cocoa. Sadly, milk chocolate, when processed, loses many of the health benefits named above. It is even believed that drinking milk with your dark chocolate can interfere with the absorption of all the beneficial compounds found in dark chocolate

So what does 100 calories of dark chocolate look like? Most chocolate bars have between 300-400 calories in one bar, so based on the 100-calories-per-day rule, you would want to make the chocolate bar last for three to four days. This same 100 calories is most often about ¾ ounce of chocolate, but can vary depending on the sugar content — it is always best to check the label.

Here are a few other treats to consider. Just remember to check labels for calorie content, and aim for 100 calories.

  • Dark Hershey’s KISSES®

  • Cocoa powder mixed with sugar and hot water (mixing it with milk could block the nutrient absorption as mentioned above)

  • Dark chocolate–covered almonds

  • Dark chocolate–covered berries or banana slices

Chocolate craving busters

The following treats may not follow the at least 65% cocoa rule or the avoid milk chocolate or drinking milk with chocolate rule, but they will come in handy when you are desperate for the chocolate sensation!

  • Reduced-calorie hot cocoa

  • Fat-free fudgesicles

  • Reduced-calorie chocolate pudding

  • Chocolate protein shakes, made with chocolate protein powder and chocolate soy milk or skim milk

And last but not least, my all-time favorite, a small handful of M&Ms!

One last thought...

Keep in mind that the high-calorie concentration of chocolate can easily cause weight gain, which would negate the healthy benefits mentioned earlier. So be sure to indulge with discretion! And if you’re like me, you may want to keep your chocolate in a hard-to-access cabinet. As I said above, M&Ms® are my weakness, but when I’m looking to be “healthy” with my chocolate, I go for a square of dark chocolate crumbled onto a bowl of berries.


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