Calling all chocoholics! Why a little of what you fancy does you good
As you bask in the good feelings induced by eating an Easter egg, what is the evidence for the health benefits of chocolate?
Chocolate contains flavonoids, substances known to have anti-inflammatory effects and whose anti-oxidant properties help mop up disease-causing agents in the body. Photograph: iStock
Hello fellow chocoholics! Are you in good form after enjoying an Easter egg over the weekend? Just in case any of you are feeling that useless emotion – guilt – over your recent chocolate intake, this week’s column will take a deliberately biased look at the health benefits of chocolate.
Let’s start with a bit of science: chocolate contains flavonoids, substances known to have anti-inflammatory effects and anti-oxidant properties that help mop up disease-causing agents in the body. It’s also full of the amino acid tryptophan, which is an essential ingredient of the feel-good neurotransmitter, serotonin. As well as tryptophan, chocolate contains phenylethylamine. The body converts this to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps us experience pleasure.
The dark stuff is definitely good for you – anything with more than 50 per cent cocoa has health benefits linked to some of the chemicals found in dark chocolate. And it seems three to four squares of the darkest stuff is the ideal daily dose.
So here is a list of specific health benefits for you to mull over as you contemplate whether to attack the remains of your Easter egg today. But caveat emptor; some of the research may have been funded by chocolate makers.
1. Chocolate decreases stroke risk
A Swedish study found that eating more than 45 grams of chocolate per week led to a 20 per cent decrease in stroke risk among women. A meta-analysis by researchers from Cambridge University revealed the highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a 29 per cent reduction in stroke compared with the lowest chocolate intake.
2. Chocolate reduces the likelihood of a heart attack
Research shows that eating chocolate prevents blood clots, which in turn reduces the risk of heart attacks. Platelets clump together more slowly in chocolate eaters. A University of Aberdeen study of more than 20,000 people found that those who consumed a small bar of chocolate a day had an 11 per cent lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
3. Chocolate reduces the risk of diabetes
A small study from the University of L’Aquila, in Italy, found that eating chocolate increases insulin sensitivity, which reduces the risk of diabetes. But remember: Chocolate also contains lots of fat and sugar, and weight gain and type 2 diabetes are inexorably linked.
4. Chocolate may prevent cancer
Cocoa contains a compound called pentameric procyanidin, which has been shown to disrupt cancer cells’ ability to spread in a laboratory setting.
5. Chocolate is good for your skin
But chocolate makes acne worse, you say. Make what you will of a finding by German scientists that flavonoids found in dark chocolate protect women’s skin from the sun’s UV rays. Just don’t skimp on the sunscreen while you experiment with this one.
6. Chocolate suppresses coughs
How about some chocolate instead of a codeine-laced linctus the next time you are hacking uncontrollably?A chemical in chocolate, theobromine, seems to reduce the activity of the vagus nerve, a part of the brain involved in coughing fits. I look forward to prescribing it if larger studies confirm this finding.
7. Chocolate helps numerical ability
A study by British psychologists found that flavanols (a class of flavonoids) helped people with their maths. Study subjects found it easier to count backwards from a randomly generated number between 800 and 999 after drinking a cup of hot chocolate. However, in an utterly nonsignificant study of one, your columnist can report that a lifetime fondness of chocolate has not improved my numeracy.
8. Chocolate makes you live longer
If you are someone who prefers anecdotes to scientific studies, how about following the diet of a woman who lived to be 122. Jeanne Louise Calment ate 2½ pounds of dark chocolate per week.
That’s enough evidence for me. Now where is that back-up Easter egg I bought for emergencies?