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Chocolate Without Guilt

Chocolate Healthy?

Chocolate. It's one of the ultimate symbols of decadence. Just saying the word brings to mind images of a rich and creamy indulgence. With Valentine's Day almost here, there's a chance a loved one may be giving you some. Wouldn't it be great if chocolate were actually good for you?

Make the right choices and it is.

In the Mayan and Aztec civilizations, they used to brew the cocoa bean into a drink called "xocolatl" (which means bitter water). They believed it had healthy and life-sustaining qualities. Scientists are now discovering they were right. Raw cocoa is a healthy vegetable; the problem starts with all the milk and sugar that it's mixed with to make it tastier.

The Kuna Indians provide a living example of the traditional uses of cocoa. They drink an average of five cups of a cocoa-based beverage each day. Their native diet is high in sodium, but they don't develop higher blood pressure when they age like other populations do. Problems only seem to happen when the Kuna move to places where they don't consume the cocoa drink. When cocoa consumption stops, their blood pressure rises in line with other populations.

The evidence was strong, but researchers wanted to test the long-term effects of cocoa consumption on populations that didn't traditionally drink it.

That's where Brian Buijsse, M.Sc., at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, Bilthoven, in the Netherlands stepped in. Biujsse and his associates tracked 470 men who were from age 65 to 84 years. The subjects went through physical examinations and gave information about their diet when they enrolled in the study in 1985. There were follow-up visits in 1990 and 1995. After that, the researchers placed them into three groups, based on their cocoa consumption.

When all the data was collected, the researchers discovered that men in the group with the highest cocoa consumption were HALF as likely to die from cardiovascular disease. Their risk stayed low even after factoring in alcohol consumption, weight, physical activity and smoking.

The researchers concluded, "The lower cardiovascular mortality risk associated with cocoa intake could not be attributed to the lower blood pressure observed with cocoa use... Our findings, therefore, suggest that the lower cardiovascular mortality risk related with cocoa intake is mediated by mechanisms other than lowering blood pressure."

They went on to say: "Because cocoa is a rich source of antioxidants, it may also be related to other disease that are linked to oxidative stress (e.g. pulmonary diseases, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and certain types of cancer)," ... "However, this merits further investigation."

So how much cocoa were they eating of drinking? Just 4 grams of cocoa a day. That's about how much you'll find in two chocolate Hershey's Kisses.

One of the ingredients in chocolate that seems to help is something called flavonols. Similar to those found in fruit and red wine, researchers from the University of California, Davis found that flavonols in chocolate boost nitric oxide (NO) levels. The flavonol that did the trick was epicatechin. When the volunteers drank the cocoa drink, they experienced significantly higher blood vessel dilation when compared to volunteers who drank cocoa with low levels of the flavonol.

That means a cocoa-based drink can be a great post-workout option. To make sure you're getting healthy cocoa and not empty fat and calories, follow these rules.

  • Choose dark over milk chocolate. The antioxidant capacity of a typical serving of milk chocolate is only 1/3 that of the same serving size of dark chocolate.

  • Check that the cocoa content is 60% or greater. Less and it may not have a high enough healthy flavonol content.

  • Don't eat chocolate coated with anything. Chocolate choices like dark M&M's may be convenient, but the candy-coated shell is just empty calories.

  • Never forget about serving size. An ounce of dark chocolate has around 140 to 150 calories and packs 8 to 10 grams of fat per serving. So a little each day is fine, but a lot can impact your waistline.

  • Avoid chocolate syrup; it's typically very high in sugar and empty calories.

Fun Chocolate Facts

Chocolate Pieces Caffeine: One ounce of chocolate has about 20 mg of caffeine. An 8 oz. cup of drip coffee has from 104-192 mg. If you're avoiding chocolate for the caffeine, unless you're highly sensitive, it's generally not enough to keep you up.

Fat: The fatty part of the cocoa bean is cocoa butter and that's 70% saturated fat. Fortunately, it's mainly stearic acid, which has minimal effects on cholesterol.

Mood: Chocolate contains phenylethylamine and fat. Both increase the production of endorphins (your body's natural morphine) and cause a feeling of well being. As little as a one gram of chocolate can do the trick.

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