The diversity of the human experience is undeniable, illustrated by the incredible variations in the human diet, from country to country, from culture to culture. But a common thread common to all, to varying degrees, is the appreciation of sweet things. To demonstrate this fact, look at how many foods in your neighborhood grocery store contain added sugar in one form or another. Each aisle leading to the checkout is lined with candy and treats. Although most Americans know that excess sugar is harmful, the candy industry is huge, with sales in the billions (33 in 2014) and a projected increase of 6 billion over the next five years.
The point here is not to detail the many dangers of sugar consumption, but simply to point out that there are many and few benefits. In fact, I’m writing to discuss a wonderful alternative. Lately, the press has been very interested in chocolate and its effects on health. Does this mean your next doctor visit might include a chocolate prescription? It’s unlikely. There is probably a drug, currently in production, that will achieve some of the same goals………with complications…..but it is worth thinking about.
Just look at the incidence of type 2 diabetes, in which the disease develops in adults. Diet is usually a critical factor, meaning people with the condition likely had a diet high in sugary or processed foods. And these come in many forms, from the solids of corn syrup to high fructose syrup to the many manifestations of carbohydrates (sugar molecules linked together).
Excessive consumption of sugar, on a recurring basis, leads to repeated and excessive production of insulin to manage this glucose load. The body’s muscle cells become resistant to the effects of insulin when it repeatedly enters the bloodstream. When this happens, blood sugar levels become significantly high. To use a quaint but apt aphorism, “Too much is a bad thing”and these high glucose levels act like a poison.
So why chocolate? Chocolate is often seen as a treat that should only be enjoyed once in a while. Chocolate varies widely in its fat and sugar content, so this notion should not be surprising; overconsumption of cheaper varieties can lead to health problems, such as tooth decay and obesity. A key factor in this discussion concerns the variations between different types of chocolate. The dark variety is clearly the healthiest and will remain the one referred to throughout the rest of this talk.
It turns out that dark chocolate is very nutritious and packed with nutrients that can have a positive effect on your health. For example, it contains organic compounds such as polyphenols, flavanols, catechins, among others, which are biologically active antioxidants. For this reason, dark chocolate is considered one of the best sources of antioxidants on the planet. These flavanols can stimulate the lining of arteries to produce nitric oxide, a substance that sends signals to the arteries to relax, thereby reducing resistance to blood flow and, therefore, helping to reduce blood pressure. Numerous controlled trials have in fact shown that cocoa and dark chocolate can facilitate this task.
Researchers now suggest that consuming a small amount of chocolate each day could reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease. For example, some studies have shown that dark chocolate can reduce “bad” cholesterol and increase HDL, the good cholesterol, as well as reduce total LDL in people with high cholesterol. Compounds in dark chocolate appear to be highly protective against LDL oxidation. In the long term, this should cause much less cholesterol to become lodged in the arteries and therefore reduce the risk of heart disease in the long term. It turns out that several long-term observational studies show a drastic improvement in cholesterol levels.
Dark chocolate may also reduce insulin resistance. A recent study compared participants who ate chocolate every day with those who did not, and found that dark chocolate eaters had reduced insulin resistance and improved liver enzyme levels. The effect was stronger the higher the chocolate consumption, the team reported.
Want another reason to eat dark chocolate? The bioactive compounds in dark chocolate may also be great for your skin. Flavonols may protect against sun damage, improve blood flow to the skin, and increase skin density and hydration. The amount of UV-B rays needed to cause redness on the skin is more than doubled after consuming flavanol-rich dark chocolate. If you’re planning a beach vacation, these findings suggest you consider stocking up on dark chocolate in the weeks and months leading up.
The good news isn’t over yet: dark chocolate can also improve brain function! A study in healthy volunteers showed that 5 days of consuming flavanol-rich cocoa improved blood flow to the brain. Cocoa products can significantly improve the cognitive function of older adults with mental disabilities. It also improves verbal fluency and several disease risk factors, as revealed in several studies. Cocoa also contains stimulating substances like caffeine and theobromine, which appear to cause short-term improvements in brain function.
I am not for one moment suggesting that you go out and gorge yourself on dark chocolate. But I would recommend this approach to anyone with a “gourmand”, and is worried about his weight, or maybe he just wants to lose a few pounds. Perhaps a person has a family history of type 2 diabetes or wants to reduce their risk of high blood pressure. These people, and many others, should replace candy with dark chocolate whenever possible.
Dark chocolates often contain sugar, but in small amounts. The darker the chocolate, the less sugar it will contain. You should choose quality organic dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% or more, as there is a lot of junk food on the market. With good quality dark chocolate, you can satisfy your craving for something sweet and, at the same time, actually improve your blood sugar levels, and even lower your blood pressure. Who knows what else, maybe even increase your IQ?
Dr. Conway McLean, DABFAS, FAPWHc, has offices in L’Anse and Marquette. He is a doctor specializing in the treatment of leg, ankle and foot problems.