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Can Chocolate Actually Be Good For You?

Nathan Boyd -- Surprise! Surprise! Chocolate may actually be better for you than you realized.

Let's face it. When it comes to conjuring up images of food items that are at once an indulgence, forbidden, and perhaps even downright sinful, chocolate will almost always immediately come to mind. We all love chocolate it seems, and many of us will feel guilty after consuming it for no other reason than because... well, just because!

In fact, when you think about it, we tend to place chocolate on a special pedestal of sorts in our culture. Chocolate is given as a gift, as a reward, or as a special way of telling someone that you love them; it could even appear to have been designed only for special occasions. Yet we will still eat this product year-round, and we will still view it as both an indulgence and an ultimate temptation.

But keeping in line with one of the major tenets of the book, There Are No Bad Chocolate-Chip Cookies!, chocolate should not be viewed as more of a danger to our diets than any other food because, just as with any other items, there are no bad foods. Instead, it is our own perception and use (or misuse!) of any particular foods that can lead to problems. As long as the principle of Moderation is followed, every food item can be enjoyed in the diet and every food item can provide benefits to one's nutritional needs.

Chocolate, in fact, may be better for us than we ever gave it credit for. The last several years have produced a number of studies that indicate numerous health benefits come from ingesting chocolate. Research has provided preliminary evidence that certain compounds in chocolate can help to maintain a healthy blood pressure, keep your blood flowing, and provide a beneficial dose of antioxidants in greater amounts than are available in some fruits or vegetables. Chocolate contains vitamins A, B1, C, D, and E, as well as potassium, sodium, iron, and fluorine. Plus, it has even been proved to neither cause nor aggravate acne, thereby dispelling a longstanding and popular misperception.

Cocoa is well known for the high amount of flavonoids it provides, and dark chocolate is known to have a higher concentration of them than does milk chocolate. Flavonoids are plant compounds with powerful antioxidant properties and the flavonoids in chocolate are typically referred to as flavonols. This is important to note, as it is these flavonols that a number of studies have focused on when determining some of the most important health properties of chocolate.

In one particular study, researchers found that participants who drank cocoa containing a higher amount of flavonols exhibited a greater incidence of nitric oxide activity than did those in a lower-dosage group. (1) Nitric oxide is a small hydrophobic gas that your body employs in numerous cellular functions such as regulating muscle contraction, initiating hemodilation (the widening of the blood channels), and maintaining healthy blood pressure. Of interest is that the lead researcher of the study, Dr. Norman K. Hollenburg, initiated his study based on the residents of the island of Kuna in Panama. It was noted that the people of the island of Kuna typically drank about five cups of cocoa every day, yet rarely ever developed any high blood pressure. However, when any of the inhabitants of Kuna left the island, their risk of high blood pressure increased and studies determined that it wasn't related to their sodium intake or obesity.

Research has found that chocolate's high levels of flavonoids may also help to lower the risk of heart disease. These flavonols help prevent fat-like substances in the blood stream such as LDL (low-density lipoproteins) from oxidizing. When LDL oxidizes, it begins to lead to the formation of plaque in the arterial walls (atherosclerosis), a process that can ultimately lead to clogging of the arteries, a major cause of heart attacks. Additionally, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that eating chocolate up to three times each month may increase your longevity by almost a year. (2) Those findings were based on a study of 7,841 men who attended Harvard between 1916 and 1950, which found that those participants who ate chocolates had lived almost a year longer than those who had abstained completely.

As with anything else, it is recommended that chocolate be enjoyed in moderation. While it may have its health benefits, it is still considered an energy-dense (high-caloric) item and can contain as much as 50% fat. But as long as moderation is practiced, chocolate clearly has its beneficial properties and thus reinforces the belief that there really are no bad foods for one's diet.

Enjoy your chocolate!

References:

1. K Chevaux, L Jackson, ME Villar, J Mundt, J Commisso, G Adamson, MM McCullough, H Schmitz, N Hollenberg, Proximate, Mineral and Procyanidin Content of Certain Foods and Beverages Consumed by the Kuna Amerinds of Panama J Food Cmpstn & Anal 2001;14:553-563

2. Lee IM, Paffenbarger R, Life Is Sweet: Candy Consumption and Longevity BMJ 1998; 317: 1683-1684.

Nathan Boyd is the current Director of Pro Fitness of Texas and the author of the highly rated book, There Are No Bad Chocolate-Chip Cookies! Nathan encourages everyone to attain a successful Fitness Lifestyle. For more, visit : http://www.nobadcookies.com.

© 2004 Nathan Boyd

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