Chocolate is the ultimate comfort food; we turn to it in times of stress, it consoles us when life gets us down and it puts us in a good mood. But is it at all healthy? Some experts maintain that too much of the sweet stuff could contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
However, other scientists suggest that consuming chocolate can actually help to keep you healthy. With so much conflicting evidence, it is difficult to know what to believe. So let us take a look at the possibilities.
Cocoa beans – from which chocolate is made – are believed to contain more than 300 compounds that are beneficial to health. They are packed full of flavonoids and flavanols, such as anthocyanidin and epicatechins. These are antioxidants which are known to destroy free radicals in the body.
These free radicals are chemicals which can cause damage to DNA and other cell compounds, accelerating ageing and contributing to heart disease, cancer and other diseases. The darker, the more flavonoids and flavanols which is why the majority of studies have hailed dark chocolate for its health benefits.
Cocoa beans also contain dopamine, phenylethamine and serotonin, all of which are known to enhance mood and promote feelings of well-being.
Possible health benefits of chocolate
- Lowering cholesterol levels – A study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that the plant sterols and cocoa flavanols in chocolate bars lowered cholesterol and improved blood pressure.
- Preventing memory decline – Scientists at Harvard Medical School suggested that drinking two cups of hot chocolate a day may help keep the brain healthy and prevent memory decline in older people. In a further study in 2014, researchers found that a cocoa extract called lavado, may reduce or block damage to nerve pathways found in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.
- Lowering risk of heart disease – Research published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has suggested that consuming chocolate could help lower the risk of developing heart disease by one third.
- Reducing risk of stroke – Canadian scientists carried out a study involving over 44,000 people and found that people eating chocolate were 22% less likely to suffer a stroke than those who didn’t. In addition, those who had a stroke but regularly consumed it were 46% less likely to die as a result.
- Boosting cognitive function – In a study which analysed the data of 968 over a 30 year period, the researchers found that individuals who consumed chocolate at least once a week performed significantly better on all cognitive tasks, compared with those who never or rarely ate it. Cocoa contains flavanols which improve blood flow to the brain and chocolate also contains small amounts of caffeine which can boost alertness. Interestingly, the researchers found that it was not only the dark variety that was beneficial. Milk and white varieties were also found to have a positive effect.
- It is mineral rich – Dark chocolate is packed with beneficial minerals such as potassium, zinc and selenium and a 100g bar of dark(70% or more cocoa solids) provides 67% of the RDA of iron.
- It is good for your skin – The flavanols in the dark variety can protect the skin against sun damage.
- It is good for mothers and babies – A Finnish study found that chocolate reduced stress in expectant mothers and that the babies of such mothers smiled more often than the babies of parents who did not eat chocolate.
- It makes you feel better – Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA) which encourages your brain to release feel-good endorphins.
When considering the possible health benefits detailed in the studies referred to above, it is important to note that more evidence is required before the links can be said to be conclusive.
We should also remember that chocolate has a high fat and sugar content, which can lead to weight gain if consumed in excess amounts, raising the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other conditions. But these studies suggest that it may be beneficial in moderation as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle.
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