There's no question that chocolate is one of the best foods you can include in your diet––really! It's right up there with broccoli, leafy greens, healthy sources of protein, lots of water, and red wine (you've probably heard that doctors recommend a glass a day, and we’ve no need to argue that!).
Chocolate is rich in essential minerals and trace elements that support bones, muscle, heart, and brain health and play a vital function in producing enzymes and hormones. But the best part about chocolate? Everyone loves it. Whether you're a stickler for the "real" chocolate, that is, the dark varieties or you dig milk or white chocolate, it's hard to stop at one little post-dinner nibble. But don’t worry––you don't have to. A 100-gram bar gives you a nice fiber boost and delicious access to those macro and trace minerals. You've probably noticed too that you feel a little happier after you eat chocolate. It's not just because it tastes good. Keep reading, and we’ll tell you why.
A friend of mine keeps a secret stash of chocolate hidden in her underwear drawer. As a mother of two young boys, she has to hide it for fear one of them should get their innocent hands on it and overeat the stuff. But deep down, she admits the real reason is that she doesn't want to share it. "It remedies a sometimes challenging day, and something to look forward to" she says. Any parent can understand that! So I ask what kind of chocolate she goes for. "M&Ms, halloween-sized snickers, that kind of thing."
Well, that's where things start to fall apart. Commercial "candied" chocolate of those varieties isn't quite the same as a rich, dark chocolate bar. Most contain vegetable oils, palm fat, emulsifiers, egg-white powder, glucose syrup, and refined sugar (usually the first ingredient). Put all that stuff in front of cacao, and we have a very different nutritional profile that’s not so healthy. But most of us know that. What we don't know is enough about dark chocolate to appreciate what it does for our heart and our mood. So, let's have a look.
Why Chocolate is Good For You
Hailed as a superfood, chocolate is rich in antioxidants. While many of us know that antioxidants are good for us, we may not know why. Antioxidants are compounds that inhibit oxidation, a chemical reaction that produces free radicals. Free radicals pitch themselves throughout the body, causing cellular damage, speeding up the aging process and causing inflammation, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. And chocolate can help prevent this.
To be considered dark, chocolate must contain at least 70% cacao, and this is the type you want to keep close by or hidden in your underwear drawer. Dark chocolate contains flavonoids, a phytonutrient that acts as an antioxidant. Flavonoids may play a part in preventing cancer, improving cardiovascular health, reducing the risk of stroke, and supporting weight loss goals (1, 2). They help produce nitric oxide, which relaxes blood vessels and lowers blood pressure (3).
Cacao, chocolate's source, contains theobromine, an alkaloid that resembles caffeine and promotes wakefulness, lowers blood pressure, improves blood flow, boosts mood, and supports respiratory health. There is also evidence to suggest that theobromine can reduce inflammation, which makes chocolate part of an anti-inflammatory diet, along with plenty of fruits, veggies, and complex carbohydrates (4, 5).
Chocolate And Your Brain
Chocolate stimulates the parts of your brain associated with pleasure and reward, which comes as no surprise to chocolate lovers everywhere. That in turn, decreases stress and enhances mood. But there's more to it than that.
The brain and gut produce a neurotransmitter called serotonin, also known as the feel-good hormone along with dopamine. Chocolate is linked to serotonin through an amino acid called tryptophan, which chocolate contains in small amounts. Tryptophan is the precursor for serotonin, so larger amounts of it increase this happy hormone, which elevates mood and reduces anxiety.
Chocolate kick-starts another pleasure-producing neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is that brain-produced chemical that tells us to "get more of whatever that was because it's good." The secret ingredient in this relationship between chocolate and dopamine is a compound called tyramine, deriving from the amino acid tyrosine. Chocolate contains tyramine, and tyrosine is the precursor to dopamine. When we indulge in chocolate nom nom, tyrosine increases dopamine levels, producing a feeling of joy and ease, and ultimately, sending us back for more.
Chocolate isn't just a mood elevator for its great taste. Chocolate also helps improve cognition and prevent memory loss by improving neuroplasticity.
What Chocolate is Keto?
If you're on a keto diet, carbs aren’t totally out of the question, but a serious reduction is required. Generally, you want to choose a low-sugar, high-quality dark chocolate between 70%-85% cacao. Check out the difference in carb count for 1 bar or 141 grams of chocolate:
45-59% chocolate: 77.2 g net carbs
60-69% chocolate: 49.9 g net carbs
70-85% chocolate: 35.3 g net carbs
You'll notice there's a big difference between milk chocolate varieties and darker versions. When possible, opt for a higher percentage of cacao, and choose organic, vegan, and paleo versions of chocolate. They're not hard to find these days. Most organic supermarkets and boutique health food shops carry different brands of keto-friendly chocolate. While not vegan, Green & Black’s organic 85% cacao dark chocolate is a high-quality choice. Enjoy a square of it every night, post dinner.
For Every Meal…
Some women say that chocolate gives them as much pleasure as sex (what do the men say?). Whether or not that’s true for you, quality counts––in both cases. A square of good-quality dark chocolate provides as much pleasure to the tongue as gobs of the commercially-produced milky stuff, and it’s far better for you. It’s no surprise that people around the world have consumed chocolate for centuries! You simply don't need as much to achieve the same kind of reward without the consequences.
Quality dark chocolate is usually a bit on the pricey side, compared to Snickers, but with all those health benefits and rich, concentrated flavor, one bar can last up to several days––or hours. We recommend going for the good stuff and giving your heart and brain tasty rewards it can feel good about.
Before you go, check out these 5 Luscious Chocolate Recipes for the Holiday. From our kitchen to yours, we wish you all the chocolatey delights the approaching holiday season delivers!