Dietitian’s Mailbag #5: The *Dark* Truth About Chocolate

Last week, we had one of the most candy-centric holidays of the year.  Some prefer to think of it as a day about love, hearts, and romance, but a small group of us are enlightened to what it’s really about: chocolate.

But wait.  We’re only one month into the new year—we can’t abandon our resolutions yet!  Is it possible to somehow have both our chocolate and maintain our health goals, too?

So wonders EAT Cluber Rachel G., who writes, “My husband gave me a box of chocolate truffles for Valentine’s Day. He got the dark chocolate ones because he knows that I’m trying to be healthy. For years now, we’ve been hearing that dark chocolate is good for you. Is this really true?"

We’ve all seen those articles.  The title includes the word “chocolate” in the same line as something about health and— We. Must. Click.  Could it really be?  Did a clerical error in a nutrition research lab decades ago cause us to erroneously believe that chocolate is candy, when in fact it should really be categorized as a health food?  But alas, the first paragraph reveals no such thing so we skim, taking note of buzz words like ‘antioxidants’, and move on to the next thing.

So let’s get our chocolate facts straight here and now:

  1.  Is cocoa itself actually linked to any health benefits? (Here, we’re talking about the seeds from the Theobroma cacao plant which are used to make chocolate, not the final product that you buy at the store.)In short, yes.  Numerous studies have tied cocoa to beneficial effects on cardiovascular health.  In other words, current evidence suggests that consuming chocolate may provide benefits to the heart, namely reduced risk of heart disease.  Furthermore, studies have indicated that cocoa improves blood flow to the parts of the brain needed for thinking and memory. These health results are specifically linked to a naturally occurring plant compound, known as flavonoids, which have antioxidative properties.
  2. If cocoa is so great, why aren’t both dark and milk chocolate touted for their health benefits?In comparison to dark chocolate, milk chocolate has higher amounts of milk and sugar mixed in with the cocoa solids.  That means more calories.  With a higher amount of cocoa solids, dark chocolate is denser in flavonoids.
  3. Tell me the bottom line.  How much chocolate can I eat?I’m sure you’ve heard the dietitian’s mantra before: everything in moderation.  It might sound annoyingly vague, but that’s because everyone has different needs.  Someone looking to trim down their waistline will be aiming to reduce their overall caloric intake, while body builders are looking to increase their protein intake in order to bulk up.  Of course, those are extremely different examples, but you get the idea.  If your caloric needs are 1,800 calories per day, just make sure that the amount of chocolate that you’re eating isn’t pushing you beyond your goal.  Alternately, you could cut back on something else that you’re eating or increase your exercise in order to balance things out.Research has suggested that 400 milligrams per day of flavonoids yields heart and brain health benefits. Look for a dark chocolate bar with 70% cocoa or higher for a more concentrated source of flavonoids.

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Shira Katz, M.S., R.D. is the former EAT Club Staff Dietitian

You can follow Shira on Twitter@SunnySideHealth