Thursday, February 7, 2013

Embrace the Dark Side with Chocolate

"All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn't hurt."

-Charles M. Schulz, creator of Peanuts 

The Chocolate Spectrum (Photo Source: Andre Karwath via Wikimedia Commons)
      You can't really escape chocolate at this time of year due to the approach of Valentine's Day and Easter.  Not that most people really want to escape from chocolate!

      Why is chocolate a top comfort food? Eating chocolate releases the same calming brain chemicals (endorphins) that are released during exercise, falling in love, or taking certain drugs. Chocolate influences serotonin levels in the brain, which influence mood and appetite. Phenylethylamine in chocolate affects dopamine and pleasure centers in the brain. Mood instability is one reason people experience carbohydrate cravings. It is also part of the reason many women experience intense chocolate cravings during PMS; serotonin levels are typically lower at that time of the menstrual cycle.  

      Want some health benefits with your decadence? Pair your chocolate with apple slices (1 medium apple) or pear slices (1 medium pear) for added fiber and healthy fat.  Try the classic strawberries dipped in dark chocolate or experiment with dipped blood oranges.

Chocolate-dipped Strawberries (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

        Recommendations from this Registered Dietitian (RD):

  1. Embrace your dark side. All chocolate is not created equal. Limit milk chocolate, and avoid white chocolate, which contains mostly unhealthy fats and sugar, lacking the nutritional punch of the dark stuff.  Choose dark chocolate squares or bars with at least 65% cacao on the label. 
  2. Aim for the heart. Small amounts of dark chocolate can improve overall hearth health, blood pressure, and cholesterol profiles, as well as increase blood flow to the brain. 
  3. Beat the blues. Food and mood are related, and dietary choices can be important in battling depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders. Your next meal can dramatically impact a bad mood; adding dark chocolate to boost serotonin and endorphin levels may help to benefit mood and concentration. 
  4. Get in the mood. Chocolate’s alleged aphrodisiac qualities are due to anandamide and phenylethylamine, compounds that cause the body to release the same feel-good endorphins triggered by sexual activity and exercise. Methylxanthines (such as theobromine and caffeine) in chocolate increase skin sensitivity to touch as well. (Caffeine-sensitive individuals should avoid chocolate as appropriate.). 
  5. Got milk? Think again. Don’t wash down your dark chocolate with a glass of milk, which may interfere with absorption of chocolate’s antioxidants, and negate its potential benefits. 
  6. Practice moderation.  Most chocolate products are high in sugar, fat, and calories. Adding chocolate to your regular caloric intake may not be wise for individuals who are overweight or obese. Be sure to compensate for the chocolate calories with lesser intake or greater physical activity if you indulge. 
  7. Trigger/treat. In some individuals, eating chocolate may lead to bingeing and further cravings. Like mashed potatoes, ice cream, and fried chicken, a positive emotional connection to or deprivation from certain foods earlier in life can prompt eating for psychological soothing. Weaken chocolate cravings by taking a walk, texting or phoning a friend, or playing with a pet (chocolate is toxic to many animals!). Consider professional help from a counselor, therapist, or RD if you find your cravings to be obsessive or out of your control. 
For the full OKRA article on chocolate and an archive of my nutrition articles for OKRA, click here.