Is there such a thing as a guilt-free pleasure when it comes to food? Absolutely, and chocolate is one of them. This delectable, seemingly addictive food is produced from the beans of the cacao tree, whose official name is Theobroma cacao. Its scientific name reflects our long-standing love of chocolate that's endured for millennia (theobroma is the Greek word for "food of the gods").
Here are a few scientifically proven health benefits of consuming moderate amounts of heavenly, high-quality chocolate.
1. It improves your mood.
Chocolate has long been associated with love, and now scientists have discovered a possible chemical connection. Chocolate contains a compound known as phenylethylamine (PEA), a brain chemical that's released during moments of emotional euphoria. In addition to PEA, controversial findings suggest that chocolate contains pharmacologically active substances with the same effect on the brain as marijuana. The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, isn't found in chocolate, but another neurotransmitter called anandamide is. Like THC, anandamide is naturally produced in the brain and binds to the same receptors as THC, which may help explain why, while eating chocolate will not make you high, it's likely to engender some pleasant feelings or at least make you feel more relaxed and less anxious.
2. It's good for your heart.
One of the key areas of research into the benefits of chocolate consumption is its effect on cardiovascular disease. A growing amount of recent research suggests that:
- Chocolate is a rich source of flavonoid antioxidants that are especially important in protecting against damage to the lining of the arteries.
- Chocolate flavonoids prevent the excessive clumping together of blood platelets that can cause blood clots.
- Unlike the saturated fats found in meat and dairy products, the saturated fats found in chocolate do not elevate cholesterol levels.
- Frequent chocolate consumption is associated with a nearly 40% reduced risk for heart disease and a 30% reduced risk for a stroke.
- Chocolate can provide significant amounts of arginine, an amino acid that's required in the production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps regulate blood flow, inflammation and blood pressure.
3. It's associated with weight loss.
A recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that frequent chocolate consumption was associated with lower body mass index (BMI) — a ratio of height and weight that's used to measure obesity. The authors used data from 972 patients who answered the question, "How many times a week do you consume chocolate?" Their data indicated that chocolate consumption frequency was associated with lower BMI, even after adjusting for total calorie intake, exercise activity, and saturated fat intake.
These results are extremely promising. The researchers believe the benefits are once again related to the antioxidant flavonoids in chocolate. They do caution that the benefits of chocolate are only apparent with moderate consumption, and that consuming large quantities of chocolate would obviously be counterproductive to losing weight.
How much and what kind?
Since dark chocolate is higher in flavonoids, it offers the greatest health benefits. Most experts agree that the recommended "dose" of dark chocolate is approximately 30g to 60g/day (roughly 1 to 2 ounces).
In order to provide the most healthful choices of chocolate products, here are some suggestions:
- For the biggest flavonoid bang for your caloric buck, choose high-quality dark chocolate. Limit daily intake to 1-2 ounces. The darker, the better.
- Unsweetened dark cocoa powder is great for you, because it has no fat or sugar, and it's high in antioxidants.
- Avoid chocolate candies and treats made with hydrogenated fats or refined flour, neither of which promotes health.
- Also pass on products labeled "artificial chocolate" or "chocolate flavored." These imitations are not even close to the real thing in flavor, texture or health benefits.
In the right form, chocolate is a true super food. Of all the foods available on planet Earth, chocolate is perhaps the most magical and maybe one of the best health foods around. Fortunately, it's also one of the most delicious, so enjoy it in good health.
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