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Chocolate As Diabetes Medicine
November 21, 2012
I used to say chocolate tasted great, but if you thought it was a health food, you were kidding yourself. But research shows that chocolate helps manage diabetes, prevents heart disease, and improves mood. Is this too good to be true?
Next week, I’ll get back to toxic chemicals. This week, I felt like something tastier.
According to nutritionist Amy Campbell, chocolate is made from cacao (cocoa) beans. The insides of the roasted beans, or the “nibs,” are crushed into a paste.
So right there is a good start. We’ve written before about the diabetes benefits of beans, so chocolate has a good pedigree for health.
Most of chocolate’s healing power seems to come from “flavonoids,” biological chemicals that Campbell says “are thought to help lower cholesterol and lower the risk of blood clots.” Other studies show chocolate can relax blood vessels; lower blood pressure, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and blood glucose; and improve insulin function.
Unfortunately, pure chocolate is bitter. You have to add sugar to make it taste good. And pure chocolate is powdery and dry. You have to add an emulsifier, like fat, to give it an enjoyable texture. So authorities have long called chocolate harmful and told people, especially people with diabetes, to avoid it. Is there a way to get the benefits, minimize the harmful sugars and fats, and still have something you want to eat?
The healing flavonoids and flavonols are in the dark part of the chocolate. About.com guide Elizabeth LaBau defines “dark chocolate” as “chocolate without milk solids added…The cocoa content of commercial dark chocolate bars can range from 30%… to 70%… or even above 80% for extremely dark bars. Common terms used to distinguish the cocoa content of dark chocolate bars [from bitterest to sweetest] include bittersweet, semi-sweet, and sweet dark chocolate.” The cocoa percentage should be printed on the label.
Recent studies are even more strongly pro-chocolate. A meta-analysis of seven studies published in 2011 “linked high chocolate consumption with a 37% reduction in cardiovascular disease risk, a 31% reduction in diabetes risk and a 29% reduction in stroke risk when compared to low chocolate consumption” according to ABC News.
Flavonoids and flavonols are natural antioxidants, which means they reduce damage to blood vessels caused by normal circulation and wear and tear.
Chocolate also has well known mood benefits. Writing on PsychCentral, Diana L. Walcutt, PhD, said, “Chocolate’s mental health benefits include the ability to boost brain levels of endorphins (natural opiates) as well as serotonin (a [natural antidepressant]).”
Chocolate has also been found to raise levels of dopamine (the “well-being” hormone) and oxytocin (the “attachment” hormone, released during sex and while breast-feeding a baby). So some people find it has good effects on their sex life and love relationships.
Too Good to Be True?
Italian scientist Claudio Ferri, leader of Blumberg’s study, said, “a little bit of cocoa per day can be useful.” But like most scientists, he is afraid of the extra sugar, calories, and fats people consume in the form of chocolate. If people eat too much chocolate, “The potential benefits will be surely bypassed and exceeded by excessive weight gain,” says Ferri, an internist at the University of L’Aquila.
I think these doctors worry too much. There should not be a problem if people eat dark chocolate moderately. But concerns about blood glucose are widespread. An article on Livestrong.com advised, “Those who monitor their blood glucose levels should consume only small amounts of dark, or semi-sweet chocolate, or varieties that contain at least 70% cocoa content.”
There are other potential downsides to chocolate. Dark chocolate is high in caffeine, which can raise blood pressure and interfere with sleep. It has also been implicated in migraine headaches, so you may need to monitor for that. Chocolate also contains oxalates, which are associated with a higher risk of kidney stones.
A frequently recommended dose is one ounce of dark chocolate a day, but perhaps the experts are being too careful.
In practice, while scientists debate the health effects of chocolate, experts like the recipe editors at Diabetes Self-Management seem to have made up their minds. Chocolate is good and can be consumed in dozens of wonderful forms. Just don’t eat too much, keep it dark, and choose kinds that don’t have added sugars. It’s probably best not to eat it at night, so the caffeine doesn’t keep you awake.
To get a listing of dozens of these recipes — sample “raspberry chocolate cream pie” — click here.
Want some inspiration? Do you want some thoughts provoked? Check out my new blog entry at Reasons to Live. It starts with ducks and ends at a Day of the Dead celebration, with stops at neuroscience, reggae music, quantum mechanics, heaven, Buddhism, and the relative nature of life and death. Hope you enjoy it.
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