Hurrah! It seems our favourite snack is beneficial for our hearts, health and happiness, says health writer Michele O’Connor, and here’s why…
So many of us have a sweet tooth – in fact, this year, global chocolate consumption is set to reach nearly eight million tons! Worldwide sales of quality dark chocolate are climbing, too. This is great news for our health, as dark chocolate (containing 70% cocoa or more) boasts some of the highest levels of antioxidants found in any food. This is even higher than blueberries and cranberries.
Eating chocolate = happiness
“Eating chocolate is known to increase the levels of several brain chemicals,” explains GP Dr Jeff Foster.
“These chemicals include mood-altering PEA (phenylethylamine, related to amphetamine). PEA produces a mild elevation in mood and confidence; known as tryptophan and theobromine. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that’s subsequently converted to serotonin (the so-called ‘happy hormone’), which provides a feeling of contentment and increased euphoria. Theobromine is a stimulant that provides energy.”
But, as these hormone changes are limited, it doesn’t mean the more you eat, the happier you’ll feel!
It’s beneficial to your heart
“Recent large-scale studies have shown that eating dark chocolate may help to reduce blood pressure and ‘bad cholesterol’ in our bloodstream,” says Dr Foster.
A nine-year Swedish study of nearly 32 000 middle-aged and elderly women who ate dark chocolate once or twice a week found that they had a 32% lower risk of developing heart failure. It’s thought the minerals potassium and magnesium in dark chocolate help improve the blood flow to your heart.
You might even lose a few kilos
Some studies suggest that including dark chocolate in your diet may help you lose weight – particularly around the middle, says nutritionist Lisa Hutson. It’s far more filling than its milk counterpart – and it reduces cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods.
“In fact, just smelling dark chocolate will reduce your appetite response, leading to increased feelings of fullness,” she explains.
“It appears the flavonoid content of dark chocolate reduces lipogenesis (creation of new fat cells) and encourages the body to increase its levels of the protein messenger adiponectin,” which is linked to weight loss and reduced insulin resistance.
You’ll remember more
Eating dark chocolate can give your brain a short-term boost by increasing your alertness for two to three hours, according to a study by the University of Nottingham.
“Research suggests that the high quantities of antioxidants in chocolate could play a role in counteracting cognitive decline, and improving memory,” says Lisa. Northumbria University researchers also discovered that people given large amounts of flavanols found mental arithmetic much easier. Apparently, the brain releases the chemical dopamine after you eat just a couple of squares of dark chocolate. This helps with overall mental function, and improves your ability to recall people and events.
It could soothe your cough
The high content of theobromine in dark chocolate has been found to be a third more effective at stopping persistent coughs than codeine is, according to a study by the Imperial College London. Theobromine works by suppressing the activity of the vagus nerve, which causes coughing and, unlike some cough medication, it doesn’t have any adverse effects on the cardiovascular or central nervous systems. But, warns nutritionist Lily Soutter, “While this is exciting news, more research needs to be conducted before confirming that our chocolate fix could, in fact, be our next cough medicine!”
It can improve your eyesight
We all know that carrots can help your eyesight, but, according to research published in the US journal Physiology & Behavior, dark chocolate can offer benefits in that department, too. The researchers found that participants who ate dark chocolate containing 720mg of cocoa flavanols experienced enhanced visual performance – like detecting motion and reading low-contrast letters. It’s likely down to dark chocolate’s flavanols, magnesium and potassium, acting to increase the blood flow to the retina and brain.
You’ll have more energy
“Magnesium is needed for hundreds of biochemical reactions in our body, and is involved in cellular energy production, which is why lethargy is a common sign of a deficiency of this important mineral. I’ve used it with clients experiencing fatigue, PMS and stress, with great results. In fact, a chocolate craving at certain times of the month could simply be due to a higher need for magnesium during that part of the menstrual cycle.”
Dark chocolate contains up to 228mg of magnesium per 100g, while milk chocolate only contains around 63mg per 100g.