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Chocolate - Friend or Foe?

written by Serrin Gantt, M.D.
on Saturday, 8th February ,2014

I have always loved sugar. Halloween was my most beloved holiday. I remember trips to High’s with my brother, our allowance funding purchase of Big Buddy’s, Hostess cupcakes (the ones with the orange swirl icing that came off in one piece), Charleston Chews….I could truly go on and on. I exercised. I maintained a healthy weight. I figured as long as I did both, my sugar addiction could persist. Yet, as a physician, I had concerns, so periodically I would order monitoring blood work- blood sugar levels, fasting insulin levels and then one day a hemoglobin A1c - the measure of the average sugar over the past 6 weeks or so. Despite a normal non-fasting blood sugar, my 'A1c' came back in the pre-diabetic range, indicating that my risk of developing diabetes was 12 times higher than those just like me- middle aged normal weight women. Then and there I stopped eating sugar. My A1c normalized. Would I always have to adhere to such a strict regimen?

At work, on Tuesdays, we have a dark chocolate club. We have several squares of dark chocolate. Our only criteria is that the chocolate must be >70% cocoa. This posed a dilemma. Chocolate is supposed to be good for you but it contains sugar. What should I do? I did some research.

Chocolate comes from the seeds of a cocoa tree. In its natural form it is bitter, so long ago the Europeans learned how to make it delicious by adulterating it with fat and sugar. Chocolate also has other active ingredients- cannabinoid-like fatty acids, methylxanthines, biogenic amines, caffeine and theobromine, which can render it addictive. Dark chocolate is 20% monounsaturated (oleic acid) and 80% saturated (stearic) fatty acids. Although saturated acids are generally considered unhealthy, stearic acid, in particular, is not felt to cause a cholesterol elevation. Polyphenolic antioxidant potency is higher than most other food sources, which is a good thing. Dark chocolate is also rich in arginine which can have a vasodilatory effect, helping to decrease the blood pressure.

A number of studies support its health benefits. Consumption of chocolate reduced recovery of free radicals in stool, consistent with its anti-oxidant effect. Several studies documented that consumption of chocolate lowered blood pressure, reduced strokes and increased insulin sensitivity in healthy adults, which would result in lower blood sugars. Chocolate can inhibit platelet aggregation and raise your HDLs which are associated with decreased strokes and heart attacks..

Armed with my research, I was convinced -- chocolate is your friend! I now have a row of dark chocolate a day. Bring on Valentine’s Day, my second favorite holiday.

References:

•Record IR, McInerney JK, Noakes M et al. Chocolate consumption, fecal water antioxidant activity and hydroxyl radical production. Nutr Cancer 2003;47:131-135
•Grassi D, Necozione S, Lippi C, et al. Cocoa reduces blood pressure and insulin resistance and improves endothelium-dependent vasodilation in hypertensives. Hypertension 2005;46:398-405
•Innes AJ, Kennedy G, McLaren M, et al. Dark chocolate inhibits platelet aggregation in health volunteers.

Tags: chocolate, anti-oxidants

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