Confessions of a Chocoholic

Here are my secrets for enjoying chocolate in moderation.

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

If you hang around me for more than a few hours you'll quickly realize that there is one food, and one food only, that I can get rather crazy over. It's not coffee (although it is brown), or ice cream (although it is creamy), and it has a melting point that's just below body temperature. Oh yeah,'s chocolate.

Here's one confession to start us off. One St. Patrick's Day, my sister gave my two girls 3-inch foil-wrapped chocolate leprechauns from a nice chocolate store. The girls put them away in the refrigerator to savor later. Normally, these leprechauns would have been safe from my chocolate-craving clutches. But several days later I was in the mood for a bite or two of chocolate. And when I searched my usual chocolate stashes -- even the chocolate chips for baking -- the well was dry! Before you could say "the luck of the leprechauns," off went one of the heads. A few days later, I had made it down to the pointed feet.

I'm not a compulsive eater, and I really don't have food cravings to speak of. But I do have a love for chocolate that is unmatched by any other food I can think of, as evidenced by the chocolate leprechaun massacre.

Do I ever have more than a few bites at one time? Not really. Because I don't deprive myself of chocolate, it's always been something that I can enjoy in small amounts: a few chocolate kisses here, and a tablespoon of chocolate chips there.

I'll let you in on a little secret. In the upper right-hand corner of the freezer door is my chocolate stash -- some type of chocolate in individual pieces, like chocolate chips or Hershey Nuggets.

Hang on ... there is method to my madness!

Elaine's Frozen Chocolate Trick

This is based on my "Elaine Magee frozen chocolate theory": When you place a bite-size piece of frozen chocolate in your mouth, it forces you to take your time enjoying it. You can't bite it, so you have no choice but to roll it around on your tongue, slowly warming it and softening it.

This method will give you 3 full minutes of chocolate ecstasy per Hershey's nugget, compared with mere seconds for chocolate at room temperature. I know this because I timed myself doing it several times just to be sure (this was a really fun experiment -- do try it at home!).

A Double Whammy

Think chocolate tastes good? Well, according to some researchers at Yale University, it smells good too. They found that sniffing chocolate activated different regions in the brain than tasting it did. You know what that tells me? That doing both at the same time must be mind-blowing!

Next time you enjoy a bite or two of chocolate, try letting your nose really appreciate it, too, and see if this enhances the experience.

You can also try the opposite -- tasting chocolate while pinching your nose (this will block the air flow between the olfactory system and the mouth) to see if there is a decrease in taste.

Health Benefits Abound (but Then, I'm Biased)

I love it when a new study comes out noting health benefit from eating chocolate because it affirms my deep respect for the cacao bean. See, I told you chocolate was good for you -- it even comes from a bean!

I'd better warn you, though, that the health benefits tend to involve dark chocolate and cocoa powder rather than the more popular milk chocolate. Many of the health benefits seem to stem from the antioxidant flavanols, which are also found in other plant foods such as tea, grapes, grapefruit, and wine. The cocoa bean happens to be extraordinarily rich in them.

The flavanol content of chocolate depends on the flavanol content of the cacao plant used, and the way the cocoa was turned into chocolate. But generally, cocoa powder and baking chocolate contain more flavonoids than dark chocolate, dark chocolate has more than milk chocolate, and white chocolate has none.

"Dark chocolate and cocoa may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease."

Here are two possible health benefits from dark chocolate or cocoa (but keep in mind that in most cases, more research needs to done):

Dark chocolate and cocoa may help:

  • Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. This is due to the high levels of the saturated fatty acid called stearic acid (which has been shown to have a neutral effect on blood cholesterol) and flavonoids found in chocolate. After a research review of 136 scientific publications, the researchers concluded that studies suggest cocoa and chocolate may reduce heart disease risks by raising HDL "good" cholesterol; lowering blood pressure; prevent the oxidation of LDL "bad" cholesterol that leads to formation of plaque in artery walls; and by its anti-inflammation and anticlotting actions. Different types of studies on flavonoids suggest they likely help to protect against death from heart disease.
  • Decrease blood pressure. Results from a small Italian study suggest that a hefty daily serving of dark chocolate (480 calories worth) may decrease blood pressure and improve sensitivity to insulin (the hormone that allows your body to use glucose for fuel). Studies done with other flavanol-containing foods such as tea and wine, have shown similar favorable effects on blood pressure.

Relax and Have Some Chocolate!

These flavonoids in chocolate may help relax the blood vessels in part by encouraging the body to make more nitric oxide (a substance released from the inner lining of blood vessels that causes the vessels to relax). That's according to research from an international team of scientists from the University of California-Davis, Harvard University, the University of Dusseldorf in Germany, and Masterfoods, Inc.

These researchers found that as healthy men ate flavanol-rich cocoa, the ability of their blood vessels to relax improved significantly, which was shown to be related to an increase in nitric oxide levels.

Chocolate Caution

The health benefits of chocolate may disappear if you are just adding these calories above and beyond your regular intake -- in which case you will most likely be adding pounds along with the flavanols.

So your best bet is to look for lower-fat, lower-sugar recipes that call for cocoa. We can also make sure the bite or two of chocolate some of us enjoy each day is the darker variety.

Here's a recipe for a cocoa-rich beverage to start you off. And have a happy chocolate (oops, I mean Valentine's) day, everyone!

Lite and Minty Hot Chocolate

Journal as: 1 cup of whatever type of milk you are using (skim or low-fat)

3 tablespoons SPLENDA No-Calorie Sweetener
3 tablespoons cocoa (preferably Dutch processed)
2 cups low-fat 1% milk or skim milk or fat-free half-and-half
1/4 teaspoon peppermint extract

  • Add Splenda and cocoa to small saucepan and blend with whisk. Gradually add milk to cocoa mixture and whisk until blended.
  • Cook over medium-low heat until thoroughly heated. Stir in the peppermint extract and serve immediately.

Yield: 2 servings

Per serving: 120 calories, 10 g protein, 16 g carbohydrate, 3.7 g fat, 2.3 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber, 125 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 25%.

Recipe provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee

Originally published February 2006.
Medically updated January 2007.

SOURCES: Nutrition and Metabolism, Jan. 3, 2006. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, March 2005. Neuron, Aug. 18 2005. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jan. 24, 2006; vol 103.

©2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.


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