Laurann O’Reilly, owner of Nutrition by Laurann, explains the good and the bad of our cherished chocolate and healthy ways in which you can incorporate it into your diet, in moderation of course.
What Are The Benefits of Chocolate?
Not to be confused with your regular chocolate bar which is high in milk, sugar and fat, I’m talking about the real, pure, raw dark chocolate. Don’t worry it can still be delicious and it has actual health benefits, some even consider it to be classified as one of the superfoods!
1) – Dark Chocolate Contains Valuable Nutrients
Although the exact nutritional values will vary depending on brand, the region where it’s grown, how it’s harvested and produced, dark chocolate is rich in the minerals iron, copper, magnesium, zinc and phosphorus. These are important as iron is required for making red blood cells, copper triggers the release of iron to form haemoglobin, which carries the oxygen around the body. Magnesium plays a role in hormone balance and bone health, whilst manganese helps to create and activate certain enzymes in the body which are important for digesting food.
2) – Enhances Mood
We can often wonder, what is it about chocolate that makes us feel so good? There are chemical components within chocolate, such as ‘phenylethylamine’, an organic compound, that when released in the body stimulates a similar feeling to that of falling in love! It also contains ‘theobromine’ and ‘tryptophan’ (an amino acid or protein building block) which helps your body to create the reward hormone ‘serotonin’ promoting happiness.
3) – Reduces Stress/Anxiety
Cocoa (dark chocolate) also contains a compound called valeric acid, which acts as a stress reducer. In combination with the production of serotonin this can cause calming effects, which in turn decreases stress levels.
4) – High In Antioxidants
The darker the chocolate, the greater the concentration of cocoa. A greater level of cocoa, results in a higher antioxidant. These antioxidants called ‘catechins’ and ‘epicatechins’ (don’t worry it’s hard to pronounce) provide huge benefits in protecting our cells against oxygen damage, which we can be exposed to through our environment as well as body processes.
5) – Improves Heart Health
Dark chocolate or cocoa contains compounds called ‘flavanols’. These support the production of nitric oxide (NO), which research has found helps to relax the blood vessels, improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure. It also contains a compound called ‘theobromine’, which may also help in reducing inflammation and blood pressure. Studies have also found that it can help to increase our HDL (good cholesterol) and reduce our LDL (bad cholesterol). Quite the all-rounder for our heart health!
6) – Boosts Brain Function
Research suggests that the cocoa polyphenols (antioxidants) in dark chocolate may alter brain activation patterns, possibly be due to increased blood flow and that they may also help protect the brain. A study published in the Physiology journal found that it can also have positive effects on memory, learning and cognition through improving ‘neuroplasticity’ (helping the brain make new connections).
7) Better Athletic Performance
The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggests that a little dark chocolate might boost oxygen availability during fitness training. Another study from London’s Kingston University also suggests that dark chocolate could be useful for athletes due to its’ ability to improve blood flow (and in turn, carry oxygen to the muscles at a faster rate), those involved the study were found to be able to cycle further and faster.
8) Promotes A Healthy Gut
An article published in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology, found that during digestion, dark chocolate behaves like a prebiotic, a type of fibre that encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. The greater the level of healthy bacteria that you have in your gut, the better your body is able to absorb nutrients and support a healthy metabolism. The compound ‘theobromine’ that we mentioned above has also been found to have anti-inflammatory effects on the gut.
What Makes Chocolate Unhealthy?
– High In Calories – Regular milk chocolate, has lower levels of cocoa, higher levels of sugar and fat which can result in a high energy intake. This can lead to weight gain if consumed in large amounts and lacks in nutritional benefits. Although dark chocolate is also high in calories (150-170 calories per 30g serving) and can also contribute to weight gain if eaten in excess, when eaten in moderation, dark chocolate, like nuts can induce satiety (your feeling of fullness).
– Caffeine in Chocolate – Yes you read that right, did you know that a 100g bar of chocolate contains approximately 43mg of caffeine. Caffeine is naturally found in cocoa beans so the darker the chocolate the higher the caffeine content! So, if you are a little sensitive to caffeine it’s an important one to factor in.
Healthy Ways To Incorporate Chocolate Into Your Diet
Recommended amount of chocolate – For adults, around 20g of dark chocolate is a good portion size. However, as dark chocolate is high in saturated fat and sugar, it’s important that it is enjoyed as part of a balanced diet and combined with physical activity.
What Will It Taste Like? – Unlike your regular milk chocolate which is high in sugar, the real deal or raw cocoa actually tastes quite bitter. There’s no need to worry though as there’s lots of tasty and healthy ways to incorporate it into your diet by combining it with the right foods.
Where Do I Get This Healthy Chocolate?
Dark Chocolate Above 70%
Remember the darker the chocolate, the higher the concentration of cocoa which in turn means a higher the level of antioxidants and valuable nutrients. Be sure to choose chocolate with cocoa level of 70% or above. Recommendation: My favourite is the Green & Blacks Organic Dark chocolate which is available in 70% and 85% (seriously dark) cocoa. Tip: Add 1 or 2 squares (a maximum of 20g) to your hot porridge and give it a stir, you may need to add a little honey or some fresh berries to sweeten.
Cacao nibs are small pieces of crushed cacao beans that have a bitter, chocolatey flavour. After harvesting, the cocoa beans are dried, fermented and then cracked to produce these small, dark and nutritious nibs. Recommendation: I like the Nua Naturals Cocoa Nibs (also available in most health stores). Tip: Add to your porridge, to smoothies or in place of chocolate in baking
Raw ‘cacao’ and ‘cocoa’ powders are the same thing, although used interchangeably to refer to the basic powder which is made from whole, roasted cacao beans that have been ground up. Recommendation: I also like the Nua Naturals Raw Cocoa powder (available in some supermarkets and most health stores), as it’s seriously versatile. Tip: Add to your porridge, smoothies, yogurts, in baking or make a nutritious hot cocoa drink. Remember it’s a little bitter but it is better and loaded with nutritional benefits unlike your regular hot chocolate, plus you can always add a little honey to sweeten.
Remember To Enjoy In Moderation – Having a healthy relationship with chocolate means being able to enjoy it in moderation and without guilt. When choosing chocolate try go for the healthier versions I mentioned above.
Try Laurann’s delicious Recipe
Chocolate Avocado Smoothie
1 cup Unsweetened Almond milk
1 ½ Tablespoons of Nua Naturals Raw Cocoa Powder
2-3 Tablespoon Stevia drops (natural alternative to sugar)
1 Tablespoon of Flaxseed
Place all ingredients in a high speed blender
Blend, pour and enjoy!
Laurann O’Reilly is a qualified and experienced Nutritionist with a BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from University of Nottingham and a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin. www.nutritionbylaurann.ie