If you love chocolate, the chances are you don’t need another excuse to eat it every day, but if you are someone who feels guilty for enjoying your favourite sweet treat, I have some good news – dark chocolate with a high cocoa percentage can [and should] be incorporated as part of a nutritional and balanced lifestyle.
To shed some light on why dark chocolate should be seen as less of an ‘indulgence’ and more of a daily essential to boost your overall wellbeing, here are 5 of the biggest benefits of dark chocolate and the best ways to use it.
It’s not often that we hear the words immunity and chocolate in the same sentence, and that is because most everyday chocolate is laden with saturated fats and sugars – the very ‘anti-nutrients’ of a healthy immune system.
However, by opting for dark chocolate made from 70% cacao or more, you can reap the immunity boosting benefits of cacao beans which have been consumed by humans for over 3,000 years, and have been shown to strengthen the defenses of our immune system and up our body’s resistance.
They can also enhance our blood flow, improve gut health, and ease stress — all effects that may indirectly strengthen our immune system as well as increase T-Cell activation and cellular immune responses.
A powerful source of antioxidants
Dark chocolate is also very rich in beneficial compounds called ‘antioxidants’, in particular, polyphenols, flavanols and catechins. In fact, it is thought that dark chocolate has more of these compounds than other so-called ‘superfoods’ such as blueberries, acai berries and cranberries.
Antioxidants are important because they protect cells and tissues from damage by free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can alter and weaken cells.
Not only can dark chocolate’s incredible antioxidant qualities aid in combating DNA mutilation which results in ageing symptoms like greying hair and wrinkles, they can also potentially extend cancer protection by diminishing damage to cells, as well as improve brain function and help reduce the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
The cacao in dark chocolate causes the brain to release endorphins, which are released during exercise too and lower our stress, giving us a general sense of wellbeing.
Dark chocolate and cacao also contain an amino acid called tryptophan, which your brain uses to produce the neurotransmitter serotonin – the feel-good chemical which influences your mood and is known as the ‘natural mood stabiliser’ because it helps reduce depression and regulate anxiety.
Serotonin levels increase with the amount of cacao, so the darker the chocolate, the better the effect. If you choose low quality chocolate, the sugar and added nasties will encourage your body to crave more, which can have the opposite effect and turn happiness into guilt and self-punishment, so it’s important to remember that less is more, and to choose the best quality chocolate available.
As serotonin regulates your mood, another key compound is tyramine, which is derived from the amino acid in tyrosine. With increased tyrosine levels comes increased dopamine, which activates the reward and pleasure centre of your brain, influencing the way you behave and keeping you going back to the thing that makes you feel good.
Muscle and nerve health
Dark chocolate is packed with magnesium which aids in muscle and nerve health, along with 98% of our potassium requirement, helping replenish lost electrolytes.
As it is full of antioxidants, the polyphenols in dark chocolate can help the body form more nitric oxide, a compound that causes blood vessels to dilate and blood to flow more easily, allowing you to work harder for longer when exercising.
The epicatechin found in cocoa flavanols also supports a healthy blood flow, and helps your vital organs and muscles get the oxygen and nutrients they need to perform their best.
In addition, a study published in Sports Medicine found that ingesting caffeine enhances both strength and endurance, and consuming caffeine with carbs [a combination you see in chocolate] can help boost your muscle recovery after a hard workout.
Enhanced brain power
If you need to focus and have an important test or meeting, a study by University of Nottingham which saw participants consume a flavanol rich cocoa drink, found that eating dark chocolate can give your brain a short-term boost and increase your alertness for two to three hours.
Another study of young adults from 2011 found that two hours after consuming dark chocolate with high flavanol content, memory and reaction time were better than among those consuming white chocolate with low flavanol content.
How to use it
To truly feel the benefits of consuming dark chocolate as part of a nutritional balanced lifestyle, you must remember not all dark chocolate is made the same
When choosing which type to eat, a higher percentage of cacao is best – the more cacao, the more healthy nutrients and the less sugar and other potentially negative ingredients.
There are many ways dark chocolate can be consumed, and you don’t just have to eat it straight. It can also be melted with hot water to create a smooth, calming drink, or added to your baking or breakfast, or to anything that needs a great chocolate hit.
Whilst eating chocolate every day might sound too good to be true, there are clearly so many reasons why dark chocolate is an irreplaceable staple in any diet.
Enjoy it as part of a balanced lifestyle of exercise and nutrition and experience the many benefits and delicious flavour that no other superfood has to offer.