By Sue Ingebretson
Do you love chocolate as I do? If so, then you’ll be happy to know that chocolate can actually love you back. When you’re dealing with fibromyalgia, chronic illness, and other health challenges, it might be difficult to decipher what’s best for you regarding nutrition plans, fitness programs, and health supplements. But I can usually get a simple thumbs-up when it comes to my endorsement of chocolate as a health food.
Yep – chocolate can even qualify as super healthy.
Of course – as with all nutrients – quality matters. Dark, antioxidant-rich, chocolate that is minimally processed is best. Raw and unprocessed is even better.
More details to come, but for now let’s look at the benefits.
What makes dark chocolate healthy?
Dark chocolate is known for improved blood pressure, blood flow, and may even help with the prevention of blood clots and hardening of the arteries.(1)
Dark chocolate improves blood flow to the brain which may help in the prevention of strokes while also improving mental clarity, memory, learning, and focus. The antioxidants present in dark chocolate protect against free radicals and rapid aging of the brain. These benefits are also linked to a reduction in the risk of dementia, lowered insulin resistance, and improved performance in seniors suffering from mild cognitive dysfunction.(2)
We’ve already pointed out that dark chocolate is rich in powerfully healing antioxidants – including flavonoids. Our typical daily lives are filled with activities, foods, and environmental exposures that lead to oxidative stress. Antioxidants provide powerful protective healing compounds that ward off the negative effects of free radicals. Antioxidants can potentially play a role in the prevention of diseases including cancer.
For additional information on antioxidants, free radicals, phytonutrients and much more, check out this article – “Phytonutrients Fighting for Fibromyalgia Recovery.”
THEOBROMINE, VITAMINS, AND MINERALS:
Theobromine is present in dark chocolate, such as cacao powder, and acts as a mild stimulant similar to caffeine. It’s important to note that theobromine is not caffeine and exhibits valuable differences. Its stimulating effects are much more mild than caffeine (about 10 times weaker) and do not affect the central nervous system.(3) Interestingly, theobromine may help in suppressing coughs as well as hardening tooth enamel.
Dark chocolate is also known for high concentrations of magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese, selenium, and zinc.
Which chocolate is best?
If the benefits listed above have you jonesing for a chocolate bar, here’s what you need to know before rushing to your corner market. We’ve already mentioned that the healing properties present in chocolate are found in dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate typically has less (if any) sugar.
Sugar is an anti-nutrient, meaning it works against the nutrition found in natural foods. When sugar is added, it creates its own havoc in the body leading to inflammation, weight gain, cognitive dysfunction, and increased risk of disease. Therefore, choose chocolate that has very low, or no sugar added.
Dark chocolate may contain healthier fats.
Milk chocolate is often made with cheap vegetable oils rather than real, cacao butter or healthier fats. Pay attention to labels that sidestep defining their products as milk chocolate and instead identify them as “chocolate candy,” or “made with chocolate.”
Dark chocolate may be less processed.
The chocolate found in milk chocolates are cooked with high heat and oftentimes subjected to chemical processing. Look for minimally processed, or raw dark chocolate. The same rule applies here as with many other healthier food choices – look for fewer ingredients!
Dark chocolate may have fewer chemical additives.
In general, dark chocolates are less likely to contain the numerous chemical additives, stabilizers, and artificial flavorings as do mass produced milk chocolates. Of course, read the labels to determine what’s in the chocolate you purchase.
Dark chocolate is more likely to contain cacao rather than cocoa.
The term, cacao usually refers to minimally processed (or raw) chocolate. Cocoa, on the other hand, refers to heated and chemically processed chocolate (alkali processed or Dutch processing). The nutritional benefits listed above are attributed to the cacao form of chocolate and are greatly reduced (or even eliminated) when processed cocoa is used.
For more information on the difference between cacao and cocoa (as well as some tasty chocolate recipes), check out this Velvety Luscious Decadent Tasting Health Food article.
In a nutshell, the things that destroy the health benefits of real chocolate are the very things typically found in milk chocolate: sugar, unhealthy oils, chemicals, and high heat processing.
What’s new in the world of science and dark chocolate?
I’m so glad you asked!
One area of study that’s recently come to light is the impact of dark chocolate on gut health. Scientific studies are all abuzz about the friendly bacteria in our gut biome and how this can be enhanced by chocolate.
The antioxidants specifically studied in this research are called polyphenols. Due to particle size, polyphenols aren’t easily absorbed in the digestive system.(4) Healthy gut bacteria love to feast on some polyphenols more than others.
The super-helpful molecules that are preferred by gut bacteria are found in blueberries and black tea. The polyphenols found in these foods are easily broken down in the digestive system creating a healthier balance of gut bacteria, reduced inflammation, and healthier digestion as a whole.
Now, healthy dark chocolate can be added to that list! The polyphenols found in healthy cacao powder have been shown to break down easily creating improvements in intestinal inflammation, reduction in food cravings, as well as increasing levels of satiety.(5)
to improved gut health.
Healthy chocolate can actually reduce unhealthy food cravings while creating a sense of fullness and satisfaction.
What a win/win combination!
Are you ready for some simple and healthy chocolate recipes?
If you’d like to get some chocolatey creative juices going in your own kitchen, try out this Fibro-Friendly Fudgy Recipe.
My favorite way to experiment in the kitchen is simply by mixing these basic THREE ingredients to come up with tasty flavor combinations. All it takes is a healthy fat, healthy cacao powder, and a sweetener of choice (if desired). From there, select any other favorite flavor or add-in, if you like.
Try mixing about – ¼ cup melted coconut oil, a generous ½ cup or so of raw, cacao powder and your favorite sweetener such as raw, unrefined stevia. You may also wish to experiment with raw honey, pure maple syrup, etc.
From there, perhaps add in some natural vanilla extract and a pinch of sea salt. Feel free to mix in chopped nuts, seeds, dried berries, or raw fruit. Pour into molds, mini-cupcake liners, or simply onto parchment or waxed paper and cool.
This experimentation is not only fun, but tasty too!
The loaded question: How much should I eat?
A general rule of thumb says about an ounce per day of a healthy dark chocolate bar is sufficient to receive adequate nutritional benefits.(6)
But, here’s the real deal. One of the beautiful things about whole, natural foods is that nature itself regulates our consumption of it. Real, dark, healthy, unprocessed chocolate is quite bitter. This is built-in portion control! Bitter foods are naturally non-addictive and not conducive to overeating.
It’s the added sugar, unhealthy oils, and craving-creating chemicals that lead to consuming chocolate in unhealthy amounts. Therefore, if you feel inclined to overeat your chocolate, check the label. Better yet? Make your own.
Why is all of this chocolate news good for those dealing with fibromyalgia?
I don’t need to tell you that three hallmark symptoms of fibromyalgia include whole body inflammation, poor digestive health, and cognitive dysfunction. If healthy, dark chocolate can help with all of these symptoms — and more – why not give it a try?
Try adding raw cacao powder to your smoothies, breakfast quinoa porridge, and to your own healthy dessert creations. Who knows what amazing concoctions you may invent?
I’ll leave you with one more fun fact for the day. The very writing of this article is fueled by chocolate!
Seriously. Right now, I’m nibbling on some healthy, dark chocolate for a bit of a pick me up and focus while writing. If you’d like to know more about my preferred chocolate and a review of my top three favorite brands, check out this article, Chocolate: Junk Food to Superfood.
Happy healthy nibbling!
Sue Ingebretson is the Natural Healing Editor for ProHealth.com as well as a frequent contributor to ProHealth's Fibromyalgia site. She’s an Amazon best-selling author, speaker, and workshop leader. Additionally, Sue is an Integrative Nutrition & Health Coach, a Certified Nutritional Therapist, a Master NLP Practitioner, and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. You can find out more and contact Sue at www.RebuildingWellness.com.
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