In Defense of Chocolate

Could a square of chocolate a day keep the doctor away?

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Hi, my name is Jessica Serdikoff, and I am a chocoholic. (Ok, ok, I kind of really hate that word, but I am definitely a dedicated chocolate enthusiast.) I probably eat some form of chocolate most days of the week.

I am also a registered dietitian.

Fortunately, these two sentences do not have to be at odds.

Most of chocolate’s benefits are tied to the cocoa bean’s high flavonoid content, a type of antioxidant, or compound that has anti-inflammatory effects on the body, basically. (That’s a good thing.) None of the research proves that cocoa causes any positive health outcome, but here are just some of the associated benefits:

 – Promotion of a healthy population of gut bacteria (arguably the hottest topic in health research at the moment)

– Lower body mass index (a commonly used measure of a person’s leanness)

– Reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes through improved blood sugar regulation

– A neutral effect on cholesterol levels, despite containing saturated fats

– Lower blood pressure

Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease

– Improved memory

The evidence supporting overall improved cardiovascular functioning is particularly strong. Even so, there is a mantra that we must remind ourselves of when it comes to wellness: if some is good, more is not always better. There are also plenty of caveats to all of the research.

First of all, you don’t need to eat pounds of chocolate to get the benefits. Really, only a small square on a regular basis is all that’s recommended.

Second of all, it’s the cocoa that seems to have the majority of the benefits, so diluting it with cream, sugar, and other less nutrient-dense ingredients can cancel out its positive effects. That means that the double chocolate chunk muffin at your local coffee shop and the chocolate coated candy bar at the checkout lane of your favorite retailer are still best saved for occasional treats, and don’t really count as “superfoods.” We want to go as dark and as pure with our chocolate as possible to reap all of its purported rewards. Most experts say anything above 72% is fine, but really, the darkest you can palate is ideal.

If you’re more of a milk chocolate person, even 72% might seem like a reach. I get it. I was once in those same shoes, and now I even enjoy 100% unsweetened chocolate (seriously). It takes time, patience, and a little activity involving mindful eating.

You see, chocolate is not just about the flavor. If it were, sweetness would be key to offset pure cocoa’s natural bitterness. However, the experience of eating chocolate is also about the creamy texture and its richness, and these factors do not need sugar to balance them out. When we focus on them, letting the flavor linger in the background of our minds, it’s much easier to appreciate a darker square than we otherwise would.

The next time you find yourself with some chocolate, preferably one classified as “dark,” try this (or this): sit in a quiet place, in a comfortable chair. Dim the lights if you’d like. Silence is ideal, but feel free to put on some light classical or jazz music if you prefer. Unwrap the chocolate. Take one bite, and close your eyes. Move it around in your mouth slowly without biting down. How does it feel? How does the texture change as it begins to melt? Chew it slowly. Do the flavors change as you chew, or as you pass it to different areas of your mouth? How do you feel? When you’re ready, swallow the chocolate, following it as it moves down your body. Is there a taste or sensation that lingers? How do you feel now? Take a deep breath, exhale, and open your eyes.

I find that many of my clients who participate in this exercise enjoy dark chocolate more than they thought they would or usually do, and that one square is enough to satisfy them.

You may need to start with a 50-60% chocolate bar, and that’s ok. Start there, and every so often, continue challenging yourself with increasingly dark varieties. Adding cocoa powder to smoothies, oatmeal, and even savory sauces and stews can be a nice first introduction. You may also find that adding something to the particularly dark squares helps your palate. When I started experimenting with unsweetened chocolate, I found that a thin layer of all-natural peanut or almond butter and a pinch of coarse sea salt completely transformed the bitterness of the chocolate into a complex earthiness that I loved.

There are dozens of ways to enjoy chocolate’s flavors, textures, and health benefits. Let all dedicated chocolate enthusiasts unite, because if we’re mindful, we can have our chocolate and eat it, too.

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