Confession: I began researching and writing this post for purely selfish reasons. I love chocolate and wanted to rationalize enjoying it daily.
The more I read, the more I realized that the purported health benefits of chocolate may also be relevant to the symptoms of menopause and peri-menopause.
In particular, challenges that hormonal changes bring to cardiovascular health, weight management, insulin sensitivity, mood disorders and loss of short term memory.
Maybe it’s time to re-think those hormonally-induced chocolate cravings….
Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, bittersweet chocolate. All are derived from the bean of the cacao plant. A tiny nugget jam-packed full of health-giving chemicals including flavanoids (antioxidants which increase the flexility of veins and arteries), theobromines and caffeine (both stimulants which increases cardiorespiratory response), cacao has been ground, roasted and consumed by humans in dozens of cultures for hundreds of years.
Recent studies suggest the following health benefits of chocolate:
- better cardiovascular health. A long term Swedish study of more than 30, 000 women demonstrated a significantly reduced risk of heart failure in those who regularly consumed dark chocolate. Daily consumption may also reduce blood pressure, lower LDL and total serum cholesterol as well as decrease risk of heart attack and stroke, the leading cause of death in North American women age 50 and over
- improved insulin sensitivity. Chronic consumption of high sugar foods can lead to insulin resistance; a condition whereby the pancreas no longer produce enough insulin to stabilize blood sugar levels and excess sugar is stored as fat. Insulin resistance can be improved by the presence of nitric oxide, a by-product of flavanol consumption. The caveat? Make sure you’re not undermining the insulin-improving benefits of chocolate by choosing the least sweet option available.
- positive effects on cognition. Studies on the effects of chocolate consumption on brain activity demonstrate both short and long term benefits. Consuming a square or two of chocolate before a challenging mental task increases blood flow to the hippocampal region of the brain (the region responsible for learning and memory), resulting in improved attention and performance. And seniors who regularly consume foods high in flavanols score higher on cognitive function tests than their chocolate-deprived counterparts.
- enhanced mood. Daily consumption of chocolate may reduce the production of stress hormones and improve your sense of well-being, thanks to the physiological and psychoactive effects of theobromine.
Tips for getting more health-bang for your chocolate-buck
- darker is better. The higher the percentage of cocoa (or cacao), the less sugar, butter and milk (and hence, calories) in the chocolate. Aim for 70% or higher. Not only will it contain more health-improving flavanoids, it’s more satiating than milk chocolate and may actually diminish cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods.
- pay attention to serving size. The recommended daily dose of dark chocolate for improved health is a mere one to two squares. Not a whole bar. If you can’t bear to put an opened bar back in the cupboard, choose individually wrapped, single ounce servings.
- no need to get fancy. While nuts and seeds and dried fruit are a tasty addition to chocolate (and may have their own health benefits), they also increase its salt, sugar and calorie content and may just trigger that ‘bet you can’t eat just one’ response. Stick with plain, dark chocolate to maximize health benefits.
To quote Charles M. Schulz on this Valentine’s Day;
All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.