I'm always on the lookout for foods with added health benefits.
While I'm not opposed to multivitamins and supplements, I try to get as many of my vitamins and nutrients from the foods I eat as possible.
And foods high in antioxidants (the molecules that fight free radicals) are at the very top of my list.
Berries are one group of foods high in antioxidants. But the antioxidant packed food stuff my friends seem to love most is cocoa.
Far from being the embodiment of all things evil, cocoa (and its most common form, chocolate), have a number of health benefits. Chocolate:
- Lowers blood pressure
- Boosts mood
- Lowers cholesterol
According to the American Heart Association, cocoa actually improves insulin resistance and helps regulate blood sugar levels!
Cocoa owes its newly acquired place in the pantheon of previously maligned foods that may actually be good for you (also included, fats) to flavonoids, the antioxidants found in plants. These phytochemicals work within your body to combat multiple diseases, including heart disease and diabetes. The flavanols in cocoa also work to thin your blood and relax blood vessels, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol. Plus, cocoa contains compounds that boost your levels of serotonin and endorphins, which boost mood. In fact, studies have shown that cocoa may actually be used to treat anxiety.
Of course, this doesn't mean it's a good idea to head out to the grocery store and stock up on Hershey bars. There are a few things to keep in mind when adding cocoa to your diet.
- You have to go with dark chocolate: If you opt for hard chocolate (rather than cocoa powder), you only get the free radical fighting benefits with dark chocolate. The proteins in the milk in milk chocolate bind with the antioxidants and reduce neutralize their effectiveness. Keeping that in mind, know that...
- Chocolate doesn't taste like you think it does: Most chocolate bars you see on grocery shelves are very heavily processed. Not only does processing strip away many of the vitamins and nutrients that make chocolate an acceptable option for dieters, but sugars and fats are also added to reduce the bitterness of natural cocoa. Real, natural cocoa is bitter. If the chocolate you're eating is sweet, you're likely missing the health benefits.
- Opt for the darkest chocolate you can: To get food that's high in antioxidants, only choose chocolate that is 70% cocoa or more. Look for "pure" or "unprocessed" on the label.
- Consider cocoa powder: Cocoa powder is obviously the least processed form of cocoa available. While a candy bar may be more satisfying, to get the most out of cocoa, consider sprinkling it on oatmeal, yogurt or coffee.
There are, of course, the usual caveats that come with this. Chocolate is high in both calories and fat, so if you do add cocoa to your diet, you have to do so with strict moderation. As a guide, researchers believe that, to maximize the benefit and minimize the downside, you want to eat the equivalent of half a candy bar a week. Not a lot, but if you’re a fan of chocolate, it’s better than nothing.
So next time someone asks you how on earth you can be on a healthy diet and eat chocolate, you can tell them everything I just told you above.