Food of the Gods
“Anything is good if it is made of Chocolate”
- Jo Brand
Chocolate – friend or foe?
In Mesoamerica, hot chocolate, a drink made of ground cacao beans and hot water, was considered by the Olmec people to be a gift from the gods. It was even used as currency. The Spanish brought it back to Europe in 1528, but it was not an overnight sensation. In fact, when a Spanish ship carrying the beans was captured, it was thought to be sheep poo and burned! Now it is one of the most craved foods in the world and many even feel they are addicted to it.
What are the health benefits and harms of chocolate?
To answer this, we need to look at what it is made out of.
The essential ingredient is cocoa. The cocoa beans are cleaned, roasted, and shelled to make cocoa nibs. They are then ground and refined to make cocoa liquor. The liquor is then processed. It can be pressed to make cocoa butter and cocoa cake, or sugar milk, and other ingredients are added to make chocolate.
Dark chocolate contains cocoa solids (the percentage is usually on the packaging) and cocoa butter. It is intense and has a bitter aftertaste.
Milk chocolate contains a smaller percentage of cocoa solids, usually 20-25%, with cocoa butter, sugar, milk, and lecithin added. It is much sweeter.
White chocolate has no cocoa solids. It is made of cocoa butter, milk, and sugar and has a very sweet taste.
The health benefits of chocolate come from the cocoa solids; these are rich in the minerals potassium, phosphorus, copper, iron, zinc, and magnesium, and have high levels of flavonoids and other polyphenols which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These properties translate to:
- Lower blood pressure and insulin resistance, leading to reduced risk of heart attacks, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
- Better lipid profile (lowering the bad cholesterol and increasing good) and potential effects on weight loss as part of a controlled diet.
- Beneficial effects on gut flora
- Improvements in the immune system
- Enhanced cognitive function and a possible protective effect on cognitive decline
- Improved sexual function
- Increases in serotonin and dopamine in the brain
The health harms of chocolate are related to the high sugar and fat content.
High levels of sugar and fat in the diet lead to obesity, which is associated with heart disease, many cancers, and, of course, type 2 diabetes.
There are also lots of psychological effects. Being overweight can impact on our feeling of self-worth and there is some evidence that chocolate is associated with a bulimic type of behaviour.
In addition, we should examine the relationship that we have with chocolate. We crave it, but when we eat it we often feel guilty. Guilt is an extremely destructive negative emotion that drives negative thoughts and behaviours. We can fall into the habit of deriding ourselves for not having had the willpower to avoid chocolate. We may tell ourselves we are fat. We may say “well, I’ve had one piece so I might as well eat the rest of it”.
All of these reinforce the negative core beliefs about ourselves that go on to drive more negative thoughts, feelings of helplessness, and poor body image, leading to further unhealthy eating.
A much better way to look at chocolate is as a celebration of a food that you enjoy, or as a treat for reaching a goal you have achieved. Associating it with positive thoughts and feelings drives positive responses rather than negative.
If, in addition to this, you choose dark chocolate with a high cocoa solid content you will receive more of the health benefits and less of the harms.
When you do decide to have some chocolate take the time to savour it in a mindful way. If we eat this delicious treat whilst thinking of other things it is gone and we have missed the experience. Instead, appreciate the time you have to enjoy this food of the gods. Notice the smell, the colour, and the textures. Relish the taste and allow the serotonin and dopamine that the pleasure of chocolate releases to influence how you feel in a positive way. Be grateful for the chocolate and celebrate this positive experience as it deserves.