Chocolate: Friend or Foe?

Posted on Posted in Continuing Education, Homestudy, Nutrition, Webinars

chocolate-1220655_640By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

Research suggests that chocolate is the most widely craved food. There is a special questionnaire designed with the sole purpose of assessing chocolate cravings. While only 15 percent of men report craving chocolate, approximately 45 percent of women do, and 75 percent of the women indicated that only chocolate would satisfy their food craving. Explanations of why chocolate is desired by so many are numerous and include the possibility that chocolate is addictive, replaces deficient nutrients,  triggers the release of mood-altering chemicals, and  stimulates the pleasure centers in the brain.

The desire for chocolate appears to be increased by visual cues, such as looking at pictures of chocolate  or holding a chocolate bar.  Persons who have been subjected to dietary restriction prior to encountering these cues are more likely to experience cravings combined with feelings of guilt, anxiety, and depression. Findings have demonstrated that exercise is effective in reducing chocolate cravings in persons exposed to chocolate cues.  Exercise, by reducing stress, may also be effective.

While the reasons behind chocolate cravings may be unclear, the fact that chocolate is a highly desired food is certain. This raises the question of whether giving in to the chocolate urge is harmful. One could certainly argue that a daily dose of chocolate could add to an already precarious calorie balance in some people — or that responding to the craving is establishing a habitual pattern that could manifest in other, more deleterious cravings.

However, if unsweetened chocolate is viewed strictly from a nutritional point of view, it can be described as a food consisting of saturated (palmitic and stearic) and monounsaturated (oleic) fats.  Chocolate can also be described as containing starchy and fibrous carbohydrates that have very few simple sugars and few flavonoid antioxidants.  Chocolate has several minerals, including magnesium, calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, and manganese.  Chocolate has vitamins A, B-1, B-2, B-3, C, E , and pantothenic acid.  Chocolate has roughly 150 kilocalories per ounce. Unfortunately, the preferred form of chocolate for most people is not the unsweetened but the sweetened form, in which the amount of fats, sugars, and calories is increased.

Chocolate also contains the stimulants theobromine and caffeine.  Chocolate has the hormone precursors phenylethylamine and tryptophan, which are thought to have mildly anti-depressant effects. These chemicals are present naturally in the cocoa bean from which chocolate is derived. Cocoa products also contain pharmacological substances such as n-acetylethanolamines that have some chemical similarities to cannabis (marijuana), and compounds that stimulate the brain to release an opiate-like substance called anandamide. Despite the scary-sounding nature of these latter two compounds, the pleasurable effects of cocoa and chocolate do not appear to stem from their drug-like effects, but from the hedonic reaction of the mouth to the feel and smell of the combined fat and sugar. For example, when chocolate-cravers were given cocoa capsules they reported no satisfaction at all.

The moral of the chocolate story, like that of many other guilty pleasures in life, is that while a little is possibly acceptable and can even give a boost to physical and emotional health, too much pushes the pendulum in the other direction. The oft-quoted statement in this regard is “moderation in all things,” but perhaps we should also keep in mind the words of William Somerset Maugham: “Excess on occasion is exhilarating. It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit.”

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Cuisine for the Brain

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Nutrition

carrot-1085063_640By Dr. Laura Pawlak

What weighs a mere four pounds and has a workload that demands 20 percent of all the oxygen inhaled?  Answer:  the human brain.

As technology opens the door to the unique metabolic functions of the brain, scientists are investigating the nutrients required to keep mentally sharp over the decades.

With dementia rising at an alarming rate — along with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments — let’s eat with purpose, using sound, nutrition-related science applicable to the brain and the rest of the body.

Starting with the belief that what we eat plays a significant role in determining who gets dementia, Martha Clare Morris, Ph.D. and colleagues developed the MIND Diet as an intervention against the most common cause of neurodegeneration:  Alzheimer’s disease.

The work of Morris and her colleagues is based on research completed at Rush Medical University in Chicago, Illinois.  The term “MIND” is an acronym for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.

The DASH diet plan is based on research sponsored by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.  The plan was developed to lower blood pressure without the use of medication.

The Mediterranean and DASH diets are models of healthy eating for the body.  The Morris team chose foods that improve brain function significantly and also added to overall body wellness.

Adherence to the MIND diet may lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by as much as 53%, offering more protection for the brain than any other dietary regimen.

The MIND cuisine lists 10 brain-healthy food groups (green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine).  The plan limits consumption of five brain-unhealthy food groups (red meats, butter/stick margarine, cheese, pastries/sweets, and fried or fast food).

The plan suggests a minimum of three servings of whole grains, a salad, and one other vegetable every day — along with a glass of wine.  For snacks, add a variety of nuts.  Berries are the only fruits recommended.

Specifically, blueberries are noted as the powerful protectors of the brain.  Strawberries are a second choice for good cognitive function.

Use Google and enter the term “MIND Diet” for daily guidelines and recipes of a cuisine designed to maximize brain function while providing healthy foods for the rest of the body as well.


Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renown biochemist and dietitian emerita.  She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.”  On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.


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