Feast on chocolate to get healthier? It sounds like a harebrained scheme, but that’s precisely what neurologist and nutritionist Dr. Will Clower proposes in his new book, Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight: New Science Proves You Should Eat Chocolate Every Day. Despite its reputation as a fattening dessert, chocolate is now being extolled as a “superfood” that ostensibly offers a host of health benefits, from slashing stroke risk to whittling your waistline. Backed by a body of research, Clower delineates a compelling case in defense of the sweet stuff, proving that the chocolate-as-superfood hypothesis isn’t just a laughable gimmick—it’s scientifically legit.
“Chocolate is the superfood of 2014,” Clower says. “It’s just like wine: We used to think wine was bad for us, but now we know that it can be very healthy. The same goes for chocolate.”
But before you reach for a chocolate candy bar or piece of cake, there’s a catch: Chocolate is still rich in fat, calories and sugar, so you don’t get a free pass to overindulge. The key is to consume chocolate in moderation—i.e., a small square two to three times daily. And the type of chocolate matters, too. Pure, unadulterated cacao, or cocoa, contains the highest concentration of flavonoids—an antioxidant-rich phytochemical also found in green tea, apples and red grapes—which is why it’s important to seek out dark chocolate bars with at least 60 to 70 percent cocoa. (As a rule of thumb: “The more cocoa, the more nutritious,” Clower says). But because natural cacao has a bitter, chalky taste, most chocolate manufacturers add things like sugar and oils to make it more palatable, effectively canceling out the health benefits of cocoa.
In other words, not all chocolate is created equal, Dr. Clower says. “When there’s less cocoa, there’s typically more sugar,” he notes. “When the sugar content is higher, that’s when you run into problems—weight gain, cavities, blood sugar spikes.”
To reap chocolate’s health benefits, skip the sugary milk chocolate and reach instead for antioxidant-rich dark chocolate. We can’t guarantee that it will help you get bikini body-ready, but it may do your body good. Below, Clower outlines some of the purported health benefits of chocolate:
Protect against sun damage. This isn’t an excuse to stop lathering on the SPF, but numerous studies suggest that chocolate may protect skin against sun damage. According to a 2009 study, subjects who consumed 20 grams of high-flavanol chocolate daily for twelve weeks were found to have a higher minimal erythema dose (MED), the minimum amount of UVB rays required to cause redness in the skin 24 hours after exposure. “Chocolate increases the amount of UV that your skin can withstand before it becomes sunburned,” Dr. Clower explains. “In other words, it protects the skin against sun damage.”
Reduce cravings. Dark chocolate, in small doses, may tame appetite and keep cravings in check. In a 2008 study out of the University of Copenhagen, dark chocolate increased feelings of satiety and fullness in fasting subjects, lessening their cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods. According to an earlier study, dark chocolate may even help moderate blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity.
Protect your heart. In moderate amounts, dark chocolate may deliver cardiovascular benefits. The antioxidant-rich flavonoids in chocolate bolster heart health by warding off free radicals, which can cause damage that leads to heart disease. In a 2006 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, habitual cocoa consumption was found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular death in elderly men by a whopping 50 percent over a fifteen-year period. Additionally, in the 2011 National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Family Heart Study, chocolate intake was associated with a lower incidence of coronary artery disease. While these observational studies cannot determine causation, they strongly point to the heart health benefits of chocolate.
Aid muscle recovery. Chocolate milk is being touted as the ultimate sports drink for athletes, and for good reason. The flavanol epicatechin, a component of cacao found in chocolate, can improve muscle recovery and endurance, Dr. Clower says. In a 2011 study, experimental mice that were fed a dosage of epicatechin twice daily for 15 days were able to run longer on the treadmill than mice that did not receive the epicatechin. Additionally, the epicatechin appeared to stimulate cell changes in skeletal and cardiac muscle, leading to greater endurance. Although more research needs to be done, these findings indicate that flavanol-rich dark chocolate may enhance athletic performance in humans.
Ease anxiety. Is chocolate the new anti-anxiety drug? It might be. A recent study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that just a few ounces of dark chocolate daily had a positive impact on mood. In the study, which examined 72 healthy men and women aged 40 to 65 years, participants who consumed cocoa polyphenols in the form of a dark chocolate drink mix reported greater calmness and contentedness than those who consumed a placebo chocolate drink lacking polyphenols. Cocoa polyphenols act as a mood enhancer by boosting serotonin levels in the brain, in turn reducing symptoms of anxiety. “Concrete markers for anxiety and stress go down after two to three weeks of consistent high cocoa chocolate consumption,” Dr. Clower notes.
The takeaway message? The next time you assume that chocolate and a healthy diet are mutually exclusive, think again. When consumed in moderation (emphasis on moderation—this isn’t a license to go on a chocolate binge, folks), chocolate can be a tasty prescription for better health. And always heed the mantra, “darker is better.” No, your Snickers bar won’t cut it; high-quality, high-cacao chocolate is the way to go.