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Dark Chocolate: Part of a Healthy Diet


Most of us have heard the message that chocolate is good for us.  But we have to read the fine print to get to the truth in that headline.  Let’s flesh out the story a bit.

There is a growing body of science that confirms that dark chocolate does indeed provide health benefits.  Dark chocolate thins the blood and performs the same anti-clotting activity as aspirin.  Many doctors recommend baby aspirin to reduce our risk of heart attack or stroke.  Researchers at University of California, Davis have found that dark chocolate has a similar effect.  Our work supports the concept that the chronic consumption of cocoa may be associated with improved cardiovascular health, said Carl Keen.

Chocolate is a rich source of antioxidants.  Recall that aging is in part an ongoing process of oxidative reactions that damage cells and blood vessels.  Antioxidants are substances in foods that reduce this damage.  We have heard how red wine and green tea can lower our risk of heart disease because they contain the antioxidant polyphenol.   Well guess what, dark chocolate has more polyphenols than red wine or green tea.   

Studies have shown that people with pre-hypertension (Typically defined as consistent readings over 120/80 and less than 140/90) may see some reduction in blood pressure by consuming small amounts of dark chocolate on a regular basis.  This does not mean that you can replace your blood pressure medicine with a candy bar.  But if your blood pressure is starting to creep up and your doctor is telling you that eventually you may need to take medicine, half an ounce of dark chocolate daily is one of the foods to include in your lifestyle change.

That’s right, only half an ounce per day gives health benefits.  Half an ounce is about one seventh of a three and one half ounce dark chocolate bar.  Remember, in nutrition, “More is not better.”  And notice that I keep saying dark chocolate which is a different animal than milk chocolate.  The typical chocolate candy bar is made with milk chocolate which contains an unhealthy fat, butter fat and more added sugar.

By contrast, the dark chocolate bar contains healthy fat and less sugar.  The naturally occurring cocoa butter is a type of fat that does not clog arteries.  So we have a high fat food that is a good source of antioxidants that lowers our risk of heart disease.  Even though it is a healthy fat, we still must eat very small amounts in order to maintain a healthy weight.  Look for a chocolate bar that has 70% or greater cacao.  You can find this in any grocery store in the specialty candy section.

The first time you try dark chocolate you will taste a real difference from milk chocolate.  It will seem bitter and less sweet.  Try adding a few unsalted almonds (another heart healthy food) and stick to the small serving size.  After a while your palate will come to appreciate the rich dark flavor.  Incidentally, dark chocolate goes very well with a rich red wine like cabernet sauvignon.  Who says eating healthy has to be boring?

Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian and Director of Clinical Nutrition and the HC Polk Education Center at Memorial Health System in Lufkin.  The Polk Center provides individual and group education on diabetes, weight loss and heart disease; monthly classes on healthy cooking; and monthly support groups in Lufkin and Livingston.  In cooperation with Sodexo Food Service and the City of Lufkin, the Polk Center produces the nationally viewed TV series Memorial Cooking Innovations where dietitian Tim Scallon teams up with Chef Mani Marini to demonstrate that healthy eating can taste great.  The show can be seen on cable in 46 cities and on the Memorial web site at http://www.memorialhealth.org.  

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