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  • Writer's pictureJulie Branstetter

Health Benefits of Cocoa & Dark Chocolate

Updated: Mar 24

Did you know that cocoa has been used throughout history as folk medicine? Cocoa consumption is associated with decreased blood pressure, improved blood vessel health, and improvement in cholesterol levels. Eric L. Ding, PhD. Of Harvard Medical School says that apparent health benefits of cocoa come from polyphenolic flavonoids in cocoa that have the potential to prevent heart disease. You may say, well what is that? Flavonoids are antioxidants that are commonly found in fruits, vegetables, tea, wine and coffee. Flavonoid rich cocoa decreases bad cholesterol (LDL) in people under the age of 50 and increases the good cholesterol (HDL). That is exactly what you want for a healthy heart.

Insulin is a hormone that you produce that helps regulate your blood sugar. In studies, resistance to insulin dropped among people who consumed cocoa compared to groups who did not. The problem with most cocoa consumption today is that it is often paired with unhealthy levels of other ingredients like sugar and fat. Let’s just say it; milk chocolate! If you love milk chocolate, you are like most people. The consumption of sugar and fat reintroduce the same heart health risks that cocoa works to fight against. It is kind of a bad marriage of the good and bad, however, mostly sugar free dark chocolate is a great substitute!! Studies show that eating dark chocolate contributes to improved cardiovascular health along with many other health benefits. Packed with these natural antioxidants, dark chocolate and cocoa are as good for you as green tea and blueberries! In fact, ounce for ounce, dark chocolate and cocoa have more antioxidants than green tea, blueberries and red wine. Wow!! How can that be?

Cocoa is a plant based food and it is packed with flavol antioxidants. Plants naturally produce antioxidants to help them survive harsh growing conditions and to protect them from environmental stress. These same compounds help those who consume the plants as well. Recent studies reveal that antioxidants reduce the risk of many kinds of illness, from heart disease to cancer. Studies show that as soon as 30 minutes after eating one 40 gram serving of dark chocolate blood levels of the two main antioxidants in chocolate, epicatechin and catechin, are heightened. They peak two hours after consumption and are cleared from the body after about six hours. Antioxidants work by protecting your cells from damaging molecules called free radicals. Free radicals are basically unstable oxygen molecules that can trigger changes in the structure of normally healthy cells. Free radicals play a large part in the formation of cancer cells and are thought to be an underlying cause of many chronic diseases. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals! Free radicals are a natural by-product of life. You just can’t prevent them, but as we get older the natural antioxidants our body makes to fight them off begin to decline. This is why, as we age, we are more and more susceptible to disease and physical stress. The best way to recharge your antioxidant power is to get them through your diet. A healthy diet is your defense against free radicals, but what you may think about healthy may not always be so. Cocoa is very healthy but is often thought of as nothing more than candy. So not true! You need never again feel guilty about that delicious piece of chocolate you’re stashing under the mattress. Just pick the right kind of chocolate. Now you know why your mom and your doctor always told you to eat your fruits and vegetables. With recent findings in health research we can add the recommendation to eat dark chocolate and cocoa too! Dark chocolate helps manage blood sugar levels too. Keeping our blood sugar regulated is very important in keeping our metabolism working at a balanced fat burning rate. Despite its sweet reputation, dark chocolate has a low glycemic index similar to that of oatmeal. This means that it does not send your blood sugar spiking. Yes, those are angels singing in your ear. When blood sugar spikes too high (too much food sugar) or dips too low (not enough food sugar) it causes the body to store fat. When our body takes on too much glucose (sugar) in the blood the muscles cannot process it all so it goes to the cells where it is stored as fat. When our blood sugar dips our body goes into survival mode and stores the glucose as fat in the cells. Keeping our blood sugar level and steady plays a tremendous part in keeping our weight under control. Our metabolism will remain in the fat burn mode when we keep our blood sugars level which means we will burn instead of store fat all day. This adjustment alone in our diet can cause us to lose weight quickly without even exercising. Adding exercise to this change only boosts the burn rate and increases the health of the body overall. Exercise causes us to burn faster so if we don’t adjust the blood sugar level to keep up with exercising we could dip again so be sure to consider the effects of exercise on your blood sugar and metabolism as well. Cocoa decreases our resistance to insulin which regulates our blood sugar. Basically, Cocoa helps our body regulate blood sugar better. Crazy huh? Well, this is true as long as you are eating the sugar free dark chocolate variety of cocoa. If you don’t like dark chocolate, then use a sugar free cocoa powder in some of your recipes.

Chocolate also contains health benefits for our brain. Chocolate contains more than 500 natural chemical compounds, some of which have been categorized as mood-elevating and pleasure-inducing. That is no surprise considering how loved chocolate has become. Three of those compounds are theobromine, caffeine, and phenylethylamine. Chocolate is one of nature's most concentrated sources of theobromine. Theobromine is a mild, natural stimulant and molecular "cousin" of caffeine, however, unlike its cousin, theobromine does not strongly stimulate the central nervous system, nor does it have the same "eye-opening" power. Theobromine has also been used in natural cough medicine preparations as a cough suppressant. Chocolate contains relatively small amounts of caffeine, about as much as a cup of decaffeinated coffee. A 1.5 ounce milk chocolate bar has 11 mg of caffeine, while a similar-sized dark chocolate bar has 27 mg of caffeine. In contrast, a 12-ounce mug of coffee has 200 mg. The dark chocolate bar provides the extra brain function stimulation without the nervous system jitters from a cup of coffee and the sugar and fat associated with the milk chocolate. Phenylethylamine may be responsible for some of the pleasurable feelings you get after eating chocolate because it releases natural feel-good chemicals called endorphins in your brain. Phenylethylamine is released by the brain when people are falling in love. Perhaps this is why so many of us LOVE chocolate. J All in all, cocoa is good for you and the best way to enjoy it is by eating sugar free dark chocolate or use sugar free cocoa in cooking.

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