I remember Dad giving his mother on special occasions a box of chocolate covered cherries. And I’m told by those of that generation that this was a prized gift. Dark colored berries like cherries are very nutrient dense, however from a strictly nutrition standpoint these probably had a few too many ingredients added to make them a preferred choice. But to give something to someone special in your life has its own rewards. In this month when we celebrate True Love, who are those special people in your life? Whether a sweetheart, a parent or a person with whom you have shared fond memories, a simple gift can say a great deal.
During this month when our food tradition often includes chocolate, it’s a good time to review the health benefits of this interesting food. Indeed some like my wife Kathy would go so far as to declare chocolate as its own food group.
Flavonoids are a chemical compound found in dark chocolate that have been shown to reduce our risk of heart disease. The root cause of heart disease is atherosclerosis – the gradual build-up of plaques inside our arteries making them more narrow. As our blood vessels become more blocked they also become less flexible and this raises our blood pressure. Flavonoids counteract this process by reducing platelet aggregation (forming fewer plaques) and by relaxing blood vessels (improving blood pressure.)
Unfortunately, these healthy flavonoids are not present in the more popular milk chocolate. There are several processing steps to turn raw cacao beans with their naturally pungent taste into the chocolate that we so desire. Interestingly, the healthful ingredients flavonoids are the source of this bitterness and the more we process the cacao, the more flavonoids are lost. So, choosing dark chocolate with a high percentage of cacao (70% for example) will yield the most health benefits. And consuming small amounts on a regular basis is recommended.
For some, learning to enjoy this dark chocolate may take some practice. Just like fine wines, we must develop our palate to appreciate the rich flavors in dark chocolate. Begin by having dark chocolate with another food you might like such as fresh almonds (another heart healthy food). These flavors pair well and the combination of smooth and crunchy texture is pleasing.
Chocolate is high in fat so the calories add up quickly in small amounts. The type of fat in chocolate is a blend of monounsaturated fat (heart healthy) and saturated fat (heart threatening). So keep serving sizes moderate and choose the heart healthy dark chocolate with more flavonoids most of the time.
And speaking of heart health in this month of True Love, The American Heart Association reminds us to eat fish twice a week. How about including salmon for a special family dinner? This month’s recipe is both delicious and heart healthy. Maybe we could have a chocolate dessert on this special occasion.
Just remember that the joy of True Love is more than healthy eating. So, enjoy all foods (including that chocolate cake) in moderation. Then follow a routine for the rest of the year that includes healthy foods such as dark chocolate, seeds, nuts, berries, fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy foods, modest lean meat portions and fish that is high in omega-3-fatty acids like wild caught salmon. Let’s keep our heart healthy and focused on True Love.
Tim Scallon is a registered dietitian nutritionist with many years’ experience practicing nutrition therapy in local hospitals and clinics, teaching nutrition and developing healthy recipes. He helped create the popular TV show Memorial Cooking Innovations celebrating the world of food and health. Memorial Cooking Innovations is produced by St. Luke’s Health and the City of Lufkin. It currently runs in 62 cities and is locally available on Sudden Link cable TV channels and online at http://www.chistlukeshealthmemorial.org.