Think chocolate and a healthy lifestyle are at odds? Think again. Chocolate is not only good for your soul, it can also benefit your heart and brain.
But here’s the catch: Not all chocolate is created equally. And that’s where mindfulness (and education) comes in. Choose the right kind and stop with a little. Read: An entire bag of Hershey’s Kisses is not what we’re talking about here.
The Bittersweet Truth
The cocoa bean is rich in a class of phytonutrients called flavonoids. In turn, high-quality dark chocolate is chock full of powerful antioxidants that offer cardiovascular benefits such as lower blood pressure, reduced LDL cholesterol, improved blood flow to the brain, and improved blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, according to WebMD. Highly processed chocolate — such as milk and white — has fewer nutrients and is filled with fat and sugar.
When choosing chocolate, the key is to read the label. You want a high ratio of cocoa to sugar: at least 70 percent cocoa. Cocoa should be natural, not Dutched. Dutched cocoa has been treated with an alkali to neutralize its acidity, which destroys flavonoids.
When treating yourself with a bar of chocolate, limit yourself to one small square (about 8 grams) per day. Or try our recipe for dark chocolate superfood bark.
Consider Cocoa Powder
According to the Cleveland Clinic, 1 tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder offers cardiovascular benefits with only 12 calories and one-tenth of a gram of sugar. That tablespoon includes 1.8 grams of fiber and 3 to 9 percent of your recommended daily intake of iron manganese, magnesium, and zinc.
Though you might think of cocoa powder only as something to use when baking, it’s more versatile than that. Make a chocolate vinaigrette for a spinach salad. Create a dry rub for meat by mixing it with red pepper, chili pepper, and garlic. Add a dash to your morning coffee, smoothie, or oatmeal.
As with dark chocolate, you should read the nutrition label, checking for added sugar. There should be no more than one-tenth of a gram of sugar in your cocoa powder.
The Pow of Cacao
If you want to take healthy chocolate consumption up a notch, raw cacao (ka-cow) is the unprocessed form of chocolate. Cacao powder and cacao nibs have more than four times the antioxidant power as the best dark chocolate and a whole slew of essential vitamins and minerals. Benefits include lower blood pressure, better digestion, and improved mental well-being. Yes, cacao really can help you find your bliss, and its small amount of caffeine can sharpen your focus. But there are many products on the market, so you have to be discerning about your choices.
Look for those labeled organic, raw, or cacao; avoid those labeled roasted. Snack on whole cacao beans or nibs, or toss some nibs or cacao powder into your favorite smoothie or over your morning oatmeal for a healthy and delicious boost.
Chocolate is not evil. Good-quality chocolate doesn’t cause acne, obesity, diabetes, or impulse shopping. And in moderation, it can sweeten your mood and your health.