Chocolate has a bad reputation in the health and wellness community, with many gurus and influencers advising that we remove chocolate, and other sweet things, from our diets entirely with the aim of following a healthy diet. Although the stigma surrounding chocolate is not completely unfounded – the high sugar content in many types of chocolate makes it unsuitable for a low glycemic index (GI) diet – it is not as black and white (or dark and milk!) as that.
In light of World Chocolate Day on 7th July, we munch our way through the health and hormonal benefits of chocolate, and how you can still enjoy a bite or two of your favourite treat.
What Is The Healthiest Type Of Chocolate?
Dr Ghazala Aziz-Scott, hormone specialist at the Marion Gluck Clinic, says, “while a little bit of chocolate in moderation is unlikely to disrupt your hormones, switching to a healthier alternative can help you optimise your health – and there are plenty to choose from, including reduced sugar chocolate, dark chocolate and bitter chocolate. But the type of chocolate with the most health benefits is always going to be raw, unprocessed cacao.”
Chocolate comes from the seeds of the cacao tree, which are bitter in their raw form and so must be processed in order to become palatable. You may have heard of both cocoa and cacao, which are also products derived from cacao seeds. Although they are spelt similarly and derived from the same plant, they are very different in terms of their impact on health.
The Process Of Making Cocoa (Chocolate)
The cacao seed kernels are fermented to remove their bitter taste, then roasted at a high temperature, and finally ground. Oils, milks and sugars are added to create the cocoa products that we are most familiar with today.
Unfortunately, during the roasting process, many of the cacao seed’s nutrients are lost. Then, when extra ingredients (particularly sugar) are added, the cocoa product has fewer health benefits.
Cacao: A Healthier Chocolate
Unlike cocoa, cacao is not roasted. Instead, the cacao seeds are cold pressed, allowing them to retain most of their nutrients while removing that bitter taste. These nutrients include:
- A range of vitamins including E and B vitamins
In addition, many raw cacao products – including powders and nibs – do not include added oils and sugar. Although it’s important to check the packaging if you are unsure.
What About Dark Chocolate?
Many people see dark chocolate as a healthy alternative to milk or white chocolate. This is true, in part. Although dark chocolate generally contains less sugar, butter and milk than its lighter-coloured counterparts, it is still a cocoa product, and therefore many of the health benefits will have been lost during the roasting process.
If you want to switch but you’re not quite ready to opt for cacao, dark chocolate (in moderation) can be a good stepping stone for slowly reducing your sugar intake.
The Benefits Of Chocolate For Your Health And Hormones
As long as you’re sticking to the healthier cacao instead of processed cocoa products, you can reap the health and hormone benefits of this delicious treat. Here’s what you can look forward to:
1. Increased libido
While it is currently unproven that cacao is an aphrodisiac, research has shown that the flavonoid (a naturally occurring compound with antioxidant properties) content of cacao can improve blood vessel function, including improved dilation. Due to the fact that the blood vessels to the genitals dilate during arousal, it could be suggested that consumption of cacao can lead to increased libido and a better sex life!
2. Better heart health
On the subject of blood vessel dilation, there’s no doubt that better blood flow is good for your heart health. In addition, flavonoids help prevent the build up of cholesterol, inhibit the clustering of platelets (reducing the risk of blood clots), and decrease inflammatory immune responses.
3. Lower stress levels
The high magnesium content in cacao makes it a great addition to the diet for lowering stress, as stress and magnesium deficiency can be a vicious circle. Magnesium is essential for helping the body regulate stress levels, while higher stress levels can result in magnesium loss. Supplementing this element through your diet may contribute to helping improve your overall stress levels.
4. Reduced cravings
Switching to cacao may eventually help you reduce your sugar cravings over time as your body adjusts to less frequent sugar intake schedule. If you currently struggle to find healthy, low sugar snacks and fruit tasty, you are likely to find them more flavoursome once you have adjusted your palate.
5. Boosted mood
Need a daily pick-me-up? A study of 13,626 participants by University College London found that those who reported eating dark chocolate in two 24-hour periods were 70% less likely to report clinically-relevant depressive symptoms than those who did not eat dark chocolate at all within the time period. This could be helpful for those who experience mood dips due to hormonal imbalances.
6. Clearer skin
The antioxidants in cacao may help increase collagen production, reduce signs of skin ageing and decrease the severity and occurrence of spots and acne.
7. Prevention against cognitive decline
The antioxidant epicatechin, which is present in cacao, has been said to prevent the onset of dementia. The research is so compelling that the dementia charity Alzheimer’s Society is funding research with the aim of creating a new treatment for Alzheimer’s.
How To Introduce Cacao Into Your Diet
There are many health shops and supermarkets that now sell cacao as a delicious, healthier alternative to cocoa products. You can find cacao as a powder, which can be used in smoothies, with oats, or in low sugar cakes (try it in this yummy Easter cake recipe) and desserts (dark chocolate prune brownies, anyone?). You can also purchase cacao nibs, which can be used like chocolate chips; or, alternatively, there are many ready-made cacao snacks on the market. There has never been an easier time to jump on the cacao train!
For more information and advice on foods that you can eat to help balance your hormones and improve your health, look out for our articles and recipes on our blog.
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