If there is a single food that exemplifies the possibility of a mind-body-food connection, it’s chocolate. It could be said that life is literally like a box of chocolates, as chocolate is commonly associated with love, pleasure and even guilt. And seriously, although women generally tend to crave fruit and bread, my guess is that most women would much prefer receiving a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day than a bag of blueberry muffins.
There is a wealth of evidence that chocolate conveys health benefits due to its high antioxidant content and role in enzyme production. It is being tested as a treatment for high blood pressure and for individuals with cardiovascular disease risk. Chocolate also improves the cells sensitivity to insulin when they are resistant, a trait that leads to diabetes and poor body composition. It appears that in moderate quantities, chocolate really is as healthy as media headlines proclaim.
In its raw form, chocolate is derived from the seed of the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao), which is native to tropical environments and grows best below the forest canopy. The majority of the chocolate in the world comes from West Africa. After fermentation and drying to produce its raw form (a process that is much simpler than that shown in the Willy Wonka movies), the chocolate is often combined with other ingredients, such as milk and sugar.
Beyond its mouth-watering taste, does chocolate contain ingredients that give it special qualities – qualities that may be good for your body and even your brain? Let’s take a closer look.
The most dramatic health benefits from chocolate are seen in its ability to lower blood pressure. One study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
compared the effect of a dark or white chocolate supplement on blood pressure in a population of healthy adults for 15 days. White chocolate contains no polyphenols, which are the nutrients that are thought to moderate blood pressure. Dark chocolate contains a high concentration of polyphenols.
The dark chocolate supplement significantly improved insulin sensitivity and decreased blood pressure, whereas the white chocolate had no effect. The researchers in this study then performed an analysis of all previous chocolate-related studies and found that chocolate supplementation is linked to an average drop in systolic blood pressure by 4.5 mm HG and diastolic of 2.5 mm Hg. A reduction of 3 mm Hg in systolic blood pressure is estimated to decrease the risk of cardiovascular and all-cause mortality. Even more impressive, a second analysis of previous chocolate research found a reduction in cardiovascular disease risk of 37 percent and drop in stroke risk of 29 percent from eating chocolate.
In addition to improving metabolism and cardiovascular health, chocolate is a brain nutrient. The book Why Women Need Chocolate
(Hyperion 1995), written by registered dietitian Debra Waterhouse, clarifies how chocolate affects neurotransmitter production. In it Waterhouse explains the theory that women have food cravings that are linked to reproduction and brain chemistry. The latter theory is related to serotonin and endorphins, which are neurotransmitters in the body that provide a chemical link between neurons, or nerve cells
Serotonin is associated with the consumption of the amino acid L-tryptophan, which works best with the consumption of carbohydrates. Waterhouse says that serotonin stabilizes the mood and creates a sense of calmness. “When your brain cells’ level of serotonin is low, they don’t have the ability to send the “feel good” messages, and, therefore, you feel irritable and moody.” In contrast, endorphins are associated with foods that contain fat, specifically the fatty acid N-acylethanolamine. Waterhouse says that endorphins create a sense of euphoria. “When endorphin levels are low in your brain cells, you feel stressed and fatigued. You biologically crave fat or chocolate to boost endorphins; when you fulfill the cravings, you fill the “feel good” tank, and your sprits are lifted.”
Waterhouse says that it is possible to be low in both of these brain chemicals simultaneously, so that we crave foods that contain both carbohydrates and fat. And chocolate fulfills both of these requirements. As for Waterhouse’s theory about reproduction, she says that women tend to crave “…the highest-calorie foods available so that even in the midst of a famine, we would have the necessary calories to survive and to store fat.” Again, another point for chocolate.
Other beneficial ingredients in chocolate include phenylethylamine, a chemical that also triggers the release of endorphins; theobromine, which enhances mood and is chemically related to caffeine; and magnesium, a mineral that is important in stabilizing mood and is involved in manufacturing serotonin. Furthermore, chocolate contains flavanols that help regulate nitric oxide, a compound that can help control blood pressure. The flavanols also have antioxidant properties that reduce inflammation and protect arteries.
Chocolate is especially effective in helping women deal with the mood swings that may occur during menopause. Whereas my usual recommendation to women is one serving per day of 15-30 grams of chocolate, a woman may benefit from up to 4 servings a day during menopause – provided she is exercising at least four times a week.
Before rushing out to your local supermarket and grabbing handfuls of Hershey bars, you need to follow some guidelines. First, avoid chocolates that contain high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated fats (for that matter, avoid any foods that contain these evil ingredients) and milk, as milk blocks absorption of all the antioxidants.
As a general rule, the darker the chocolate, the better. You want to look for products with a chocolate percentage (or “cocoa mass”) of 70 percent – a higher percentage than that may taste too bitter. To save you time, here are links to three great chocolate distributors: Chocolate Springs
, Dagoba Organic Chocolate
, Green and Black's Organic Chocolate
Although chocolate is considered a guilty pleasure, the fact is that this food does have many valuable qualities, especially relating to balancing brain chemistry. Women may not necessarily “need” chocolate as Waterhouse suggests, but it sure can make life a lot more pleasant.
Persson, I., Persson, K., et al. Effects of Cocoa Extract and Dark Chocolate on Angiotensin-Converting Enzyme and Nitric Oxide in Human Endothelial Cells and Healthy Volunteers. Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology
. 2011. 57(1), 44-50.
Fraga, Cesar. Cocoa, Diabetes, and Hypertension: Should We Eat More Chocolate. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
. 2005. 81, 541-542.
Grassi, D., Desideri, G., et al. Blood Pressure and Cardiovascular Risk,: What About Cocoa and Chocolate? Archive of Biochemistry and Biophysiology
. 2010. 501(1), 112-115.
Vlachopoulos, C., Alexopoulos, N., et al. Effect of Dark Chocolate on Arterial Function in Healthy Individuals: Cocoa Instead of Ambrosia. Current Hypertension Reports
. 2006. 8(3), 205-211.
Egan, B., Laken, M., et al. Does Dark Chocolate Have a Role in the Prevention and Management of Hypertension? Hypertension
. 2010. 55(6), 1289-1295.