Your Heart……and CHOCOLATE


Always keep a smile on your face, a rainbow in your heart, and some dark chocolate on hand.              Author Unknown

by Wendy Midgley, MEd, RD, CDE & Deb Brothers-Klezmer, BSN, RN-BC, CRRN, NCTMB

February is known as American Heart Month.   February also contains the holiday of Valentine’s Day, which focuses on LOVE of sweethearts, friends and family, and our beloved pets.    The HEART is a symbol of Universal Love.

It is customary to remember one’s loved ones with chocolates or flowers (or both) on Valentine’s Day. Did you know that 48+ million pounds of chocolate are sold in the USA during Valentine’s week? Why is it that chocolate goes ‘right to our hearts’, so to speak?  What is it about chocolate that makes so many people smile?   In this BLOG, we will focus on the subject of CHOCOLATE: including the pros and cons of consuming it.

There are many forms of chocolate.  Chocolate itself is a processed product–starting with the cacao or cocoa bean that grows on an evergreen shrub–mainly in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  Cocoa beans are harvested and: roasted, husked, de-fatted, and made into cocoa powder.  From cocoa powder—numerous chocolate concoctions are made.

 Theobroma cacao has often been referred to as “Food of the Gods”.  It has been of great mystery and delight for thousands of years.  Its early uses included treating a variety of medical problems—-ranging from fatigue, underweight, angina, constipation, dysentery, heart problems, skin issues, fevers and seizures.   It was also consumed as a favorite hot beverage in some of the Latin American Indian tribes. 

***Boston researcher Norman Hollenberg, MD–who studied the Kuna tribe in Panama– found that many of these people– who drank 40 + cups of cocoa/week–had <10% chance of stroke, cardiovascular failure of various kinds and <10% incidence of cancer—compared to the general population.***      (NOTE: This is a low-sugar,natural cacao variety of cocoa.)

 In the 1500’s, the Europeans discovered chocolate in their travels and started adding fats, milk and sugars to it to lessen the bitter taste.  Since then—it has become one of the most popularly consumed items in the world.

But is it good for us?   Cacao beans contain over 300+ chemical compounds.  Cacao is known to be rich in flavonoids which have many beneficial effects. They help relax the blood vessels through the production of nitric oxide.   A flavonoid called epicatechin, may help shield nerve cells from damage.   Another,  resveratrol, may help the nervous system and is considered a potent anti-oxidant.   Some sources believe that cacao may help slow down the aging process.

Some forms of chocolate have more of these beneficial substances than others.   Research is showing that the darker versions of chocolate:  70% or higher cacao (some sources say 85% or higher) may provide more health benefits.   

***“Chocolate is like anything else: Garbage in, garbage out.  Consuming poor quality chocolate loaded with sugar and chemicals, is no more beneficial to your body than  drinking a soda.”***  (Dr. Joseph Mercola)   

Flavanols/flavonoids are known to have a bitter taste. Cocoa that is  “Dutch processed with alkali”  has reduced bitterness, but also has a decreased amount of the beneficial flavanol/flavonoids.  Dr. Joseph Mercola believes that raw cacao (which can also be sweetened) is a preferred version. But he also states that high quality,  dark, certified organic, non-genetically modified chocolate brands may be of some benefit (even if not made with raw cacao.

***Some experts believe that you have to allow chocolate to slowly disintegrate in your mouth before swallowing to release the flavonoids and anti-oxidants.***

There also seems to be the goldi-locks amount of chocolate that is just right for conferring benefits.  Too much chocolate may aggravate certain health issues,  rather than help.  And very small amounts may do little for us physically; but they may help improve moods and make us feel happier

If chocolate is loaded with sugar (labeled less than 70% cacao) it will lose its benefits.   Sugars include cane sugar, malt, maple syrup, honey, dates, rice syrup, tapioca syrup, coconut sugar, molasses, and fructose. There are also the sugar alcohols and artificial sweeteners in “diet candy.”

 PROS of 70+% Dark Chocolate: 

  • Promotion of a healthy vascular system:  helps relax blood vessels and reduce clotting  (makes blood platelets less sticky), reduces oxidative damage of the cells , may help improve blood flow to the heart and brain.
  • The blood pressure lowering effects of  ‘plain dark chocolate’ could represent an effective and cost-effective strategy for people with metabolic syndrome (and no diabetes.)”  (ABC news blog 6-1-2012—-see References below)
  • Anti-inflammatory in general.
  • Improved cognition,  clearer thinking.  One small study showed improved math abilities after eating chocolate.
  • Increased mood and sense of well-being due to: Increased release of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
  • May trigger the reward regions of the brain, which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine(Rajita Sinha, Director of Yale Stress Center)

How much chocolate is good for us?   

Carolyn Snyder, RD, at Cleveland Clinic recommended consuming 1 ounce of chocolate per day, 2 to 3 times a week, for heart health benefits.

 Some Nutrition Facts:

  • 1.3 oz milk chocolate contains 42 mg flavonols, 198 calories, 22 grams carbohydrates
  • 1.3 oz dark chocolate contains 82 mg flavonols, 187 calories, 22 grams carbohydrates
  • 1 T. cocoa contains 75 mg. flavonols, 12 calories, 2.9 grams carbohydrates

***Other good sources of Flavonoids:  apples (skin of the apple), blueberries, broccoli, cabbage, capers, onions, strawberries, red grapes, spinach, kale, garlic, cherry tomatoes, red wine, black and green teas, cherries.  And other deeply colored fruits and vegetables have also been known to help with digestion, improved kidney, bowel function, and sexual performance and treat anemia and gout.***

CONS of Chocolate:

  • Weight Gain:  Eat too much and you can gain weight.  Chocolate (even dark chocolate) can be a trigger food for some people who feel addicted to sugars and carbohydrates.   
  • Migraine headaches: Chocolate can be a migraine trigger due to the chemical tyramine.   Rapid ups and downs of blood sugars and insulin levels —from high sugar chocolate—can also contribute to migraine.
  • Food sensitivity/allergy to cocoa  or cacao beans
  • Hypertension:  Promotion of high blood pressure if eaten in excess. High sugar intake raises blood sugar and insulin levels.  High insulin levels can aggravate blood pressure— due to promoting increase of angiotensin levels (kidneys).  The caffeine-like substances in chocolate can also contribute to temporary rises in blood pressure.
  • Difficulty sleeping or heightened anxiety— if overly sensitive to caffeine-like substances in chocolate.  (like xanthines,  theobromine)
  • Promotion of Diabetes:  Blood sugars and insulin levels will rise—if excess intake of highly sugared, high carbohydrate forms of chocolate.
  • Periodontal disease:  Gum disease and cavities are promoted if too much of the high sugar type chocolate is consumed and remains on the teeth.
  • Gas and abdominal bloat if too much diet chocolate eaten (from sugar alcohols used for sweeteners.)
  • Kidney stone aggravation: due to high oxalate content

***In honor of American Heart Month, remember to renew your CPR Certification.   Or consider learning CPR, if you haven’t yet.***

 “Your Heart is free, have the courage to follow it”.   (from BraveHeart)

Wishing you a full, open, healthy, compassionate heart!!!!

The Wellness Shifter Ladies!!!

Deb and Wendy


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