October 14, 2014

Why You Can Eat Chocolate Every Day (with a Few Caveats)

“Honestly, it felt like a party in my mouth,” my coworker candidly said. “I’ve never felt something so intense and bitter and, well, incredible

She was describing a recent visit to Paris, where an off-the-beaten-path detour led her to a tiny corner store, “just like out of the movies!” There she chose two squares of dark chocolate, one with ground hazelnuts and one plain, using broken French and then pointing when the shopkeeper did not understand her.

“Truthfully, I wasn’t having the best day,” she continued. “My boyfriend and I had a fight. He went to the Louvre while I chose to wander. Dramatic though it may sound, those few chocolate-filled moments instantly brightened my mood, invigorating me and challenging me to get out of my comfort zone.

My coworker needn’t sell me about chocolate’s benefits. “Give me chocolate or give me death” has long been a popular mantra, and I’ve sung its benefits at every opportunity.

Chocolate Helps You Feel Better

I can explain why those dark chocolate squares brightened my coworker’s mood. Studies show chocolate boosts serotonin (your happy hormone) and triggers a rush of feel-good endorphins very similar to that just-in-love feeling.

Chocolate also contains anandamide, which your brain naturally produces and which activates the same target as marijuana. Not only that: two chocolate ingredients inhibit anandamide breakdown. You not only feel better; that feel-good boost sticks around even longer, which becomes a win-win in my book.

Combined with its caffeine (a one-ounce chocolate square contains about 12 mg) and other nutrients, you can better understand why a few chocolate squares can brighten your day.

Dark chocolate also contains magnesium, which I call the ahhh mineral. If I’m having a stressful day, taking 200 mg of magnesium citrate always puts me in better spirits. When someone tells me they crave chocolate, I almost always connect a magnesium deficiency.

A one-ounce dark chocolate square contains about 10% of your Daily Value (DV) for magnesium. Nothing to write home about, but considering upwards of 80% of Americans has magnesium deficiencies… Well, every little bit helps.

Chocolate’s Myriad Health Benefits

Journalists love writing about chocolate because it’s that rare decadent food that also bestows health benefits. Personally, my eyes glaze over about said benefits. “I know dark chocolate is good for you,” I want to say. “Eating it is much more fun than reading about it.”

About 10 years ago, the British Medical Journal published an article about the ideal meal: Seven ingredients that, if you ate them every day, could reduce cardiovascular disease risk over 75 percent.

What did that Polymeal (as they called it) constitute? Wine, fish, nuts, garlic, fruits, vegetables, and – my favorite – chocolate. Yes, chocolate.

Far from just being an indulgence, chocolate carries a plethora of health benefits. For one, it contains more phenolic antioxidants than most foods.

Studies show those antioxidants can help reduce your risk for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. Epicatechin (yeah, the same stuff as in green tea) provides cocoa’s cardiovascular benefits.

Cocoa can also reduce inflammation, protect your skin from UV damage, boost satiety, and improve cognitive function as well as mood.  One study found Italians who regularly eat dark chocolate have lower amounts of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein.

I could go on, but then that would turn into those kind of chocolate-is-healthy articles I dismiss. Regardless, if you need more reasons to eat chocolate (and for the record, I don’t), well, there you go.

Life’s Little Luxuries

In this splendid article from Alexander Green for Spiritual Wealth Newsletter, one paragraph especially stood out as yet another benefit of chocolate:

Even in tough times like these, chocolate is a luxury you can afford. Pastry chef Norman Love points out that “You can buy two bars of the best chocolate in the world for $5. The Queen of England can’t buy any better chocolate than you can.”

Five bucks doesn’t buy much these days, but it can buy you a few pieces of excellent chocolate in the finest boutiques in Los Angeles or Paris or New York or pretty much any city.

Personally, I would rather spend five bucks on a few pieces of chocolate rather than a Starbucks coffee or a glass of wine, but everyone has their pleasure.

Dark Makes All the Difference

Yes, you can eat chocolate every day, with a few major caveats. You must choose the right kind.

“Milk chocolate and white chocolate have virtually none of [dark chocolate’s] health benefits,” writes Dr. Jonny Bowden in his excellent book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth. “Plus, the commercial candy bars are loaded with extra sugar, fat, waxes, and chemicals that are not what you want to be adding to your diet. And the more chocolate is processed, the more the beneficial flavonoids are lost.”

“Dark” should preface chocolate. Now, manufacturers have become savvy that people favor dark chocolate because of its health benefits, so they use the adjective more often these days. Just because it says “dark” doesn’t automatically make it healthy. Read those labels and don’t be easily swayed.

You want to look for dark chocolate at least 70% cacao, preferably more, look for organic chocolate with no more than seven grams of sugar per serving. If you grew up eating Hershey’s, you might be in for an, um, bitter awakening with dark chocolate. You might not initially love it, but look at it this way: You’re refining your palate. Pretty soon, that drugstore milk chocolate junk will taste like junk. Trust me.

Few chocolates will make that cut, but they’re worth seeking out. Whatever you do – and you know this – steer clear of most commercial stuff. You deserve the very best chocolate, so make it your mission to find your city’s best chocolatiers and frequent them often.

Moderation really becomes key here. Break off one serving and pawn the rest or hide it in your freezer. Chocolate is not a more-is-better food, and too much can stall fat loss or even make you gain weight.

On a healthy chocolate search? Here’s a suggestion (available at Erewhon Natural Foods Markets Los Angeles and Calabasas): Lover’s Raw Chocolate. Lover’s Raw Chocolate is handmade artisan chocolate. It’s an organic, raw heirloom superfood that’s fairly-traded. It’s vegan, GMO free, gluten free, and low glycemic and did I mention?…delicious!