Chocolate: Junk Food or Super Food?

A healthy diet is all about balance, and if chocolate is one of your favorite foods the scales might be tipped ever so slightly in your favor. While eating this sweet treat in excess isn’t recommended; in the right quantities eating chocolate daily can have health benefits.

Chocolate comes from the cocoa bean, which grows on cacao trees originally discovered thousands of years ago in the South American rainforest. For years, it was a delicacy available only for the rich, made even more popular with the addition of milk and sugar. Now chocolate is readily available with new flavors and brands emerging all the time. While chocolate is classically labeled a “junk food”, dark chocolate can have some health benefits. Other varieties like milk chocolate may have some benefits, but these are often outweighed by high amounts of added sugar and fat.

Moderate consumption of dark chocolate has been linked with heart benefits. It contains anti-inflammatory antioxidants which can help reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. Specifically, flavonoids produce a gas called nitrous oxide which acts to vasodilate, or widen, blood vessels which leads to a decrease in blood pressure. This can also help increase circulation and reduce risk of clotting. That being said, chocolate is not a substitute for any prescribed medications from your doctor.

Dark chocolate can also help to reduce oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between antioxidants and free radicals, which are an unstable molecule made by the body that can lead to damage of body tissues. Free radicals are formed when the body is exposed to stress, environmental toxins such as secondhand smoke and pollution, and illness. The antioxidant benefits of dark chocolate can help counteract the effects of free radicals. There are also research studies that correlate dark chocolate consumption with decreased levels of emotional stress.

When deciding which kind of chocolate to purchase, there are a few things to keep in mind. Higher percentages of cocoa are associated with a higher level of antioxidants. A good rule of thumb is to aim for one that has >70% cocoa. Next, look at the nutrition label. These labels can be deceiving. For example, you may see that there are 100 calories in an item but upon closer inspection, a serving size is a quarter of the bar. That would make the calories 400 calories rather than 100. Aside from calories, also look at the added sugar and saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories per day from added sugar which equates to approximately 25 grams. Similarly to the example, you’ll need to multiply the amounts from the added sugar and fat by the serving size to make sure you’re not overindulging.

I remain a firm believer that there is room in your diet for all of your favorite foods in moderation, but those same foods having some health benefits doesn’t hurt!

If you need help finding ways to work your favorite foods into an overall balanced diet that supports your goals, working one-on-one with a PUSH511 nutrition coach can help!

About the Author

Cristen Headshot

I am a Licensed Registered Dietitian with experience in critical care, cardiology, weight loss, allergy services, and food service. I graduated from Penn State University with a BS in nutrition and finished my RD training at University of Maryland. I am currently in PA school and am looking forward to combining my love of nutrition with medicine. After moving to Baltimore in 2019, I did a trial class at PUSH511 Fitness as I was looking for accountability and to meet new people. When I walked into the gym for the first time, everyone was congregated on one side cheering on a member who was struggling with ring muscle-ups at the end of the workout. It was such an uplifting moment to witness. I left the gym that day in dire need of ginger ale, but also very excited about this amazing and supportive community I had stumbled upon. I am grateful for this opportunity to give back and share my love of nutrition!


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