By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Back when I wrote an actual print newsletter, I used to hold subscriber seminars around the country. I would speak for a bit and then open the floor for Q&A. Anything and everything was fair game, and it was great to hear what was on my readers’ minds.
No matter where I went, there were a handful of questions that always seemed to come up. And one of them, believe it or not, was about chocolate.
“Do I really have to give up chocolate if I eat the PAMM diet?”
Technically, no, chocolate isn’t part of the plan. But if your sweet tooth gets the better of you (like mine sometimes does), it’s okay to make an exception—but only for small amounts of dark chocolate.
Why Dark Chocolate’s Benefits Outweigh the Competition
Of all candy, dark chocolate is the only one I’m comfortable recommending anyone eat. And even then, you should eat it in small amounts—no more than a square or two at a time. Even with its health benefits, dark chocolate is still a sugary treat that can easily stoke inflammation if you eat too much of it.
That said, dark chocolate has some good things going for it. I like that it doesn’t contain any milk and that it has a higher percentage of cocoa solids—that’s the material left behind after all of the butter is extracted from cocoa beans. The cocoa solids are what gives dark chocolate its antioxidant benefits, and no added milk means the chocolate doesn’t contain a lot of extra sugar.
In terms of specific health benefits, here are some of the ways dark chocolate is actually good for you…
Dark Chocolate Health Benefits
1. Less work for your heart. I mentioned that dark chocolate has antioxidant properties, which means it helps fight free-radical damage and inflammation—two crucial factors in the development and progression of heart disease and other progressive, long-term conditions. Specifically, these powers come from flavonoids in the cocoa solids. Flavonoids are one of the antioxidants that also lend anti-inflammatory power to wine, olive oil, herbs and spices, and other plant foods.
2. Blood that flows smoothly. In addition to fighting free radicals, the flavonoids in cocoa solids have also been shown to reduce blood pressure, improve arterial function, and reduce clotting risk. So not only will you be at lower risk for a stroke or heart attack, but you’ll have better nutrient circulation throughout your body.
3. Thinking faster. Better blood flow doesn’t just benefit the heart. It helps the brain, too. Flavonoid activity increases blood flow and promotes the growth of neurons in the part of the brain associated with learning and memory.
4. Dark chocolate nutrition. In addition to antioxidants, cocoa solids are rich in minerals and fiber. According to SELFNutritionData, a 100-gram dark chocolate bar containing 75 to 85 percent cocoa solids includes:
- Magnesium (57 percent of RDA))
- Iron (66 percent of RDA)
- Copper (88 percent of RDA)
- Manganese (97 percent of RDA)
- Phosphorus (31 percent of RDA)
- Zinc (22 percent of RDA)
- Potassium (20 percent of RDA)
- Selenium (10 percent of RDA)
- Fiber (11 grams)
That’s a lot packed into a tiny package! Of course, I don’t advise eating the entire package in one sitting. Limit yourself to a square or two, once a day.
5. Feel less stressed. It’s not just in your head—dark chocolate actually can help you feel better when the pressure’s on. At least one study shows that it does this by reducing the amount of cortisol your body produces when you’re under stress. Dark chocolate also contains a chemical called phenylethylamine, which is the feel-good neurotransmitter that creates the same euphoric feeling we get when we fall in love. It’s no wonder we all feel happier after a taste!
6. Better immunity. This is an area that requires a lot more research, but there’s some evidence that suggests the compounds in cocoa solids may be able to help keep your immune system better balanced. This means you may get a boost against bugs like colds and flu, but it also means that cocoa may have the potential to help modulate allergies and autoimmune problems like arthritis.
Like Milk Chocolate? Not So Fast…
Now let’s look at milk chocolate, which I’m not a fan of.
The reason is that milk chocolate is more sugar than chocolate. It contains far less of the cocoa bean—as little as 10 percent—so it doesn’t deliver many of the same health benefits. Plus, the FDA requires that milk chocolate contain at least 12 percent milk. Throw in some additional sugar and cream—maybe a little cocoa butter, vanilla, and lecithin too—and you’ve just got plain old candy.
And forget white chocolate—it’s not even chocolate! White chocolate doesn’t contain any cocoa solids at all—only the vegetable fat part called “cocoa butter.” As a result, it has no antioxidants and no nutritional value whatsoever.
How to Choose Your Chocolate
For the best quality and health benefits, look for dark chocolate made from organic cocoa beans, and go for the highest percentage of cocoa solids that you can handle. The higher the amount, the more bitter the chocolate tastes, so be prepared if you decide to go big.
I should also offer this one caveat for eating dark chocolate. If you are susceptible to migraines, sensitive to caffeine, or at risk of developing kidney stones, you may want to steer clear, because dark chocolate can aggravate all of those conditions.
Make Your Own Dark Chocolate
If you love cooking as much as I do, another option is making your own dark chocolate. Just mix some dark cocoa powder with a little raw honey, coconut oil, and vanilla extract (get the recipe with the specific measurements here), and voila!
There you have it—you don’t have to give up chocolate to eat a healthy diet, after all. In fact, dark chocolate is a healthy treat when eaten in moderation. So go ahead…indulge!
- Camps-Bossacoma M, et al. Cocoa diet and antibody immune response in preclinical studies. Front Nutr. 2017;4:28.
- Hooper L, et al. Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Mar;95(3):740-51.
- Nehlig A. The neuroprotective effects of cocoa flavanol and its influence on cognitive performance. Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2013 Mar;75(3):716-27.
- Nurk E, et al. Intake of flavonoid-rich wine, tea, and chocolate by elderly men and women is associated with better cognitive test performance. J Nutr. 2009 Jan;139(1):120-7.
- Pérez-Cano FJ, et al. The effects of cocoa on the immune system. Front Pharmacol. 2013;4:71.
- Self Nutrition Data. Candies, chocolate, dark, 70-85% cacao solids nutrition facts & calories. Accessed October 5, 2017.
- Steinberg FM, Bearden MM, and Keen CL. Cocoa and chocolate flavonoids: implications for cardiovascular health. J Am Diet Assoc. 2003 Feb;103(2):215-23.
- Wirtz PH. Dark chocolate intake buffers stress reactivity in humans. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014 Jun 3;63(21):2297-9.
© 2017 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.