In a story that probably has an equivalent in many families, my mother claimed that one Easter I drifted downstairs before anyone was up and plundered nearly the entire contents of my Easter basket. I evidently consumed jellybeans, marshmallow chicks, small foil-wrapped chocolate eggs, and almost the whole giant chocolate rabbit. I was ill for the entire day, she said, never donning my new patent leather shoes and AWOL at Easter Mass.
I have no recollection of this incident, but I like to think that rather than gluttony, it was very early health consciousness. Recent reports add evidence to what we’ve known all along: chocolate is good for you. This week you can indulge in chocolate covered matzo or flourless chocolate cake for Passover or chocolate Easter treats and feel good about it.
The polyphenols in dark chocolate have been shown in animal studies to increase lean muscle mass, which, in turn, can reduce weight and improve insulin regulation. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine on March 26 showed that in 1,000 adults, the group that ate chocolate more frequently tended to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who ate chocolate less often.
This study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, showed a relationship between more frequent consumption of chocolate and lower BMI, regardless of other variables such as age, weight, fat and calorie intake, gender, depression, and vegetable consumption. In other words, the advantages of chocolate consumption aren’t limited to those who are already young, lean, fit, and who snack on broccoli most of the time. We can all join in on the benefits.
In the study showing the link between eating chocolate more frequently and lower BMI, it didn’t matter whether the chocolate was milk, white, or dark. But other studies point to dark chocolate as providing the biggest health boost.
The chocolate richest in polyphenols is 70 percent cocoa or higher, says Joseph Maroon, M.D., professor of neurological surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and an expert in longevity medicine.
“Polyphenols have anti-inflammatory effects in the body,” he adds. “Cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s are diseases of inflammation, and reducing the amount of inflammation in the body is helpful.”
A 2011 study in the British medical journal BMJ found that regular consumption of chocolate was linked to a lower incidence of certain cardiovascular disorders, including stroke, high blood pressure, and coronary heart disease. Research also shows that daily chocolate consumption can lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol. Although the cholesterol studies are mostly short-term and one was funded by a chocolate manufacturer, experts are still paying closer attention to chocolate’s role in a healthy diet.
Of course, you can’t expect to tuck into an entire box of See’s and keep a low BMI, drop your heart disease risk, or reduce your cholesterol. The frequency of chocolate consumption is important, but go for a moderate daily amount. What’s moderate? About 1.25 ounces a day.
If you don’t like chocolate—there are rumored to be one or two of you out there—you have other choices to derive the health benefits of cocoa. You can take a cocoa supplement in capsule form. The manufacturer of the CocoaWell supplement states that two capsules a day contain the antioxidant equivalent of 800 grams of dark chocolate, but without the fat, sugar, or calories. Not quite as fun, perhaps, as a seasonal, dark chocolate covered Peep, but easier on the waistline and good for your health.