The Power of the Dark Side

So this week’s blog was inspired by Lindsay from work. The title came from Paul (those who know us would have probably guessed that!). And to stop you wondering what the heck this is about… today I’m looking at the power of dark chocolate! Yum! I’ve heard before – and I’m sure so have you – that dark chocolate is good for you. But then you think, yeah right – it’s chocolate after all! When Lindsay mentioned it this week, I thought perfect – let’s look it up and write a blog about it. So here is what I found!

It’s definitely not a new thing. The Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs valued cacao for its mood enhancing and aphrodisiac properties, and it was typically reserved for the ruling class. During the 14th century, the Aztecs and Mayans even used cacao beans as currency. And in the 17th century, cocoa and chocolate were considered potential medicine, and historical documents in Europe reveal they were used to treat angina and heart pain.

It’s actually the primary ingredient, cocoa, that has the power in chocolate. Researchers developed a test to measure the antioxidant power of food (the ORAC test). Raw, unprocessed cocoa beans are among the highest scoring foods that have been tested, beating superfoods like ginger, raspberries, acai berries, blueberries and blackberries. It’s worth noting that these tests have been dismissed by some, because they were performed in a test tube. So questions do arise about their relevance in the human body. But, plenty of human studies have proven that chocolate has beneficial effects throughout the body, so there must be some merit to the ORAC tests.

I’ve seen quite a few different health benefits in addition to the antioxidants, but only picked the ones that have actually been researched to keep away from the potential myths.

Heart health
According to German researchers, dark chocolate can improve your heart health. You don’t even need that much to lower your risk of stroke or heart attack, around 1 square a day should do the trick.

The Germans studied over 19,000 people for at least ten years and found that those who ate the most chocolate (7.5 grams a day) had lower blood pressure and a 39% lower risk of having a heart attack or stroke compared to those who ate the least amount (1.7 grams a day).

And according to a study carried out over 15 years, having cocoa regularly was found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular death by 50% in elderly men.

Weight loss
I hear you saying – really? But bear with me…

Certainly eating bars of it won’t accelerate weight loss. But it might just be a useful aid in helping you stick to your healthy eating plan.

Firstly, a study between the effects of white and dark chocolate found that participants who ate the dark chocolate experienced lower blood sugar levels.

Researchers aren’t sure why but they think dark chocolate’s antioxidants may help the body use insulin more efficiently to control blood sugar, which lowers blood sugar levels naturally.

Dr. Oz claims that learning how to stabilize your blood sugar is the key to help you lose weight and keep it off.

Secondly, a little treat can help you stick to your weight loss goals. How many times have you told yourself you can’t have something, obsessed about it and then binged on everything in sight? By allowing yourself a little of what you want, you’ll keep the cravings at bay. That’s exactly the reason why in our FIT15 programme we build in treats!

The news that chocolate affects your emotions probably isn’t a shock to many. Who isn’t instantly cheered up by a sweet treat? But there’s science behind it too.

Unsweetened dark chocolate has been shown to be the most effective type of chocolate when it comes to reducing stress and anxiety levels. The phenylethylamine (that same chemical that makes you feel in love) also encourages your brain to release endorphins, making you feel happier. Endorphins even possess morphine like effects, which help to block out pain.

The caffeine in chocolate is a mild stimulant which can further boost the mood, although it contains nowhere near the levels of caffeine that coffee does. Try doubling up your happiness by enjoying both together.

Protection from UV rays
Dark chocolate has been shown to protect against UV rays, increase blood flow to the skin and improve skin’s hydration (that’s probably the l-arginine in it…). A study demonstrated that regularly eating chocolate rich in flavanols offers significant sun protection and can protect from harmful UV effects; while standard milk chocolate had no effect.

Of course, never skip the sunscreen in favour of chomping on a few chocolate bars. Look at the chocolate as an added layer of protection instead.

So what chocolate to buy
Not only do you have to be careful about how much you eat, you need to watch what type of dark chocolate you enjoy. Why? Because of sugar!

While most dark chocolate contains added sugar, you don’t want it to be the main ingredient. If cocoa solids aren’t the first ingredient listed, put it back on the shelf. Sugar should be towards the very end. You’ll also want to be aiming for at least 70% cocoa content. And the higher the better…although it gets pretty bitter the higher you go!

Sugar’s not the only concern if you’re looking for maximum health benefits. Apparently, researchers in the UK found that the levels of antioxidant flavanols vary widely from brand to brand and they don’t always correlate to the labelled cocoa content. This happens because the chocolate refining process strips cocoa of its naturally occurring antioxidants in different ways.

Pick the best quality chocolate that you can find, and avoid the bars that have added milk fat or hydrogenated vegetable oils as these are both sources of unhealthy saturated fats.

And actually a 100g bar of dark chocolate with 70% to 85% cacao solids contains a load of good stuff!

  • 11 g of Fiber
  • 8 g of Protein
  • 98% of your RDA (recommend daily average) of Manganese
  • 89% of your RDA of Copper
  • 67% of your RDA of Iron
  • 58% of your RDA of Magnesium
  • 31% of your RDA of Phosphorous
  • 22% of your RDA of Zinc
  • 21% of your RDA of Potassium

Of course, 100 grams is a fairly large amount and not something you should be consuming daily. All these nutrients also come with 600 calories and moderate amounts of sugar.

While I don’t recommend eating a whole bar, I like to eat a square or two every now and then. It’s so rich that I only need a little bit to curb my sweet tooth.

And of course chocolate isn’t the only antioxidant rich food. All sorts of fruit and vegetables from blueberries and strawberries, to kale and sweet potatoes have antioxidant power – so make them your first choice in the fight against free radicals. Regular exercise can also work to boost the mood, and of course lose weight.

Basically, if you want to enjoy chocolate as a treat in an otherwise healthy diet then go for it – it’s a far healthier option than doughnuts and McFlurries. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s the only way to gain all these incredible health benefits.

If you just can’t get into dark chocolate because it’s too bitter, give cacao nibs a try. They are minimally processed cacao beans that contain no sugar and surprisingly are nutty-tasting rather than bitter.

Of course I don’t want to put you off your Easter treat of a cream egg. So enjoy and have a Happy Easter!


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