Quickly think of the top five of what you would consider to be brain healthy foods.
What did you come up with? Blueberries? Salmon? Nuts? Quinoa? If you did, great job! There is so much research being done on the brain-boosting power of diet. One food you likely did not have on your list, however is chocolate. Dark Chocolate to be specific. (Here is a list of additional brain healthy foods)
- The Darker, the Better: The most beneficial of the dark chocolates is ideally at least 60-70% cocoa (also referred to as cacao)
- 1.0 – 1.6 oz per day: The recommended serving of dark chocolate is approximately 1/3 to ½ of the typical 3.5 oz size of most specialty dark chocolate bars.
- Watch your Calories: Too much dark chocolate can negate its health benefits. The maximum daily recommended by some studies is 3.5 oz, but a full candy bar daily can add up to 600 additional calories to your diet which may cause weight or inhibit your desire to eat other more healthy foods.
- Drink it Hot! Recent testings shows health benefits in older adults who enjoy hot cocoa on regular basis.
Chocolate is an extremely complicated topic when it comes to health research because there are so many kinds of chocolate and because there are many beliefs and theories about its health benefits to sort through.
What is good for the Heart…
Dark Chocolate’s benefit for the brain is both direct, and indirect through improved heart and blood sugar-related health. Clinical research trials suggest that dark chocolate and pure cocoa are as powerful as tea, red wine and berries in enhancing some aspects of heart health.
Here’s the long-winded science behind all of this: The health benefits of dark chocolate come mostly from the potent antioxidant phytonutrients (naturally occuring chemicals) it contains, namely flavonoid compounds (particularly procyanidins and epicatechin) and several other nutrients including stimulants theobromine and caffeine. These flavonoid nutrients benefit us by increasing the blood flow in arteries and the heart, lowering blood pressure, lowering LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, improving the health of endothelial cells, and improving blood sugar control.
… is good for the Brain.
Cross-sectional (observational) studies suggest that regular intake of dark chocolate (about 10 – 14 grams/day or about .35 – .5 oz) is associated with better cognitive performance in the elderly. Learn more about the 2009 study conducted by the Journal of Nutrition.
A recent 2013 study that tested the effects of cocoa on thinking and memory showed that consuming two cups of hot chocolate a day may help older adults maintain brain health and improve thinking skills. You can read more about this Hot chocolate study at ScienceDaily.com.
Chocolate also contains many minerals important for brain and body health such as magnesium, calcium and potassium.
One well-known medical scientist at Yale University, David Katz, MD, concludes his review of the science to date this way, “Cocoa can protect nerves from injury and inflammation, protect the skin from oxidative damage from UV radiation in topical preparations, and have beneficial effects on satiety, cognitive function, and mood. As cocoa is predominantly consumed as energy-dense chocolate, potential detrimental effects of overconsumption exist, including increased risk of weight gain. Overall, research to date suggests that the benefits of moderate cocoa or dark chocolate consumption likely outweigh the risks.” Read more about Dr. Katz remarks on cocoa and chocolate in human health and disease.
Keep this in mind when shopping for chocolate:
- The amount of health-benefitting antioxidants decrease by a factor of 10, in descending order, from pure natural cocoa powder (the highest), to unsweetened baking chocolate, dark chocolate, semisweet baking chips, milk chocolate, and finally chocolate syrup (the least).
- “Dutch (alkali) processed” chocolate, the kind typically used in beverages and pastries, has significantly reduced amounts of the healthy antioxidants, so look for undutched or lightly dutched chocolates (which have 40% of original antioxidants). Heavily dutched cocoa/chocolate has only 10% of the original.
- So-called “white chocolate” is thought to have little to NO health benefits since it has practically NONE of the antioxidants described above, and consists primarily of sugar (55%) and fat (24%) including milk fat.
[A Cautionary Note: People with migraine headaches often avoid chocolate of all kinds because it is thought to trigger migraines in some people. In addition, chocolate does contain caffeine (about 1/8 to ¼ the amount in a cup of coffee) so those very sensitive to caffeine may want to limit their intake, especially in the evening. Also, chocolate and cocoa products are poisonous to dogs and some other pets, so please keep them out of reach.]
So should you get your sweetheart chocolates for Valentine’s Day?
YES! Buy her or him a luscious assortment of dark chocolates with AT LEAST 60-70% cocoa content and tell her (or him) to savor it a piece, or even two, per day!