Mmmm… Chocolate

The dark variety of everyone’s favorite sweet treat can satisfy in more ways than one.

“All you need is love,” said Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz. “But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

In fact, a little chocolate—specifically, dark chocolate—can actually help, researchers are finding. “The cacao bean is rich in plant nutrients called flavonoids,” says Sherri Flynt, manager of Florida Hospital’s Center for Nutritional Excellence. These powerful antioxidants appear to help prevent cell damage, reduce inflammation, prevent clotting, and provide other benefits that contribute to good health.

“There’s documented evidence on blood pressure,” says Lauren Popeck, a registered dietitian with Orlando Health. “Flavonoids act to widen and make arteries more flexible, which helps with blood flow.” 

Good blood flow promotes cardiovascular health by reducing blood pressure, and brain health by lowering the risk of stroke and heart attack.

There’s always room for small amounts of chocolate in a healthful diet, says Shannon Randall, a registered dietitian in Sanford. “The main things you want to avoid are a lot of added sugars,” she says, “and that’s where the dark chocolate comes in.”

Though somewhat bitter, dark chocolate has more of the flavonoids it started out with than milk chocolate. To create milk chocolate, sugar, cream and milk solids are introduced to provide a sweeter, creamier taste, diluting the concentration of flavonoids.

Popeck recommends taste-testing different brands of dark chocolate in your grocery store. Look for a cacao level of 70 percent or higher, she advises, referring to the amount of raw, unprocessed form of chocolate. “If the chocolate is high in its cacao percentage, usually it’s about 5 grams of sugar or less per serving,” whereas a typical milk chocolate candy bar contains more than 20 grams of sugar per serving, Popeck says.

Besides being good for the body, chocolate is good for the soul—and the reasons are all in the brain:

  • Endorphins: Consuming chocolate releases these neurotransmitters that create feelings of happiness. 
  • Serotonin: The tryptophan in chocolate boosts serotonin levels, improving mood.
  • Anandamide: This chemical in chocolate triggers dopamine production, creating a feeling of euphoria. Anandamide, derived from the Sanskrit word for “bliss,” binds to the same receptor sites in the brain as does the THC in cannabis.
  • Phenethylamine: Consuming chocolate releases this neurotransmitter known as “the love drug” because it produces the same feelings we experience when we fall in love.

Seriously. Who isn’t in love with chocolate? But to include it as part of a healthful diet requires moderation. Most experts recommend one-ounce “bites” a few times a week. 

“Because dark chocolate has a higher percentage of cacao,” Popeck says, “it’ll have more of that fat in there, so it’s very high in calories.” A one-ounce piece of dark chocolate candy that is 70-85 percent cocoa solids contains 168 calories, and 108 of them are from fat, according to a national nutrition database.

“You always want to keep in mind balancing your calories so you’re not gaining weight,” Popeck says, “but having that [dark] chocolate in place of a bag of chips or some other cookie or snack food is definitely a better choice.”

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