Chocolate: A Smart Food

Posted on Posted in Brain Science, Continuing Education, Homestudy, Nutrition, Psychology, Seminars, Webinars

By Dr. Laura Pawlak

There is universal agreement that chocolate is a feel good food.  Chocolate melts in your mouth, releasing its sweet, creamy, cocoa flavor, and the brain follows with a burst of “happy” chemicals.

Beyond the sensory joy of eating chocolate, there are claims that chocolate is a healthy food for the brain.  Most of us would gladly eat more chocolate if proven to benefit the brain.

Several ingredients in cocoa have been proposed to explain the possible cognitive benefits of chocolate.  Cocoa contains caffeine, a substance that enhances cognitive functioning and alertness.  Major nutrients have also been identified in the cocoa bean.  Presently, studies focus on the chemical group called flavanols.

Flavanols are micronutrients found in many fruits and vegetables, especially the fruit called the cocoa bean, the basis of chocolate.  Flavanols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties — important for brain health.

Small studies, often supported by chocolate manufacturers, state that the cocoa flavanols can boost mood and cognitive performance — as well as blood flow to the brain.  Researchers are now evaluating the significance of these small studies by conducting large, clinical trials using a cocoa extract with known flavanol content, not chocolate.

A dose of 600-750 milligrams of flavanols is considered healthful for the brain.  To obtain this dose, you would have to consume 4.75 ounces of dark chocolate, a total of 750 calories, or 40 ounces of milk chocolate, which has 5,850 calories.

A day with adequate flavanols from commercial chocolate is also a day heavy in sugar, saturated fat, and calories — not a formula for a sharp brain.  Perhaps future studies examining chocolate’s healthful ingredients in the cocoa extract will provide more healthful ways to capture the goodness of the cocoa bean.

Meanwhile, manufacturers divert your focus from calories to health by presenting chocolate paired with a superfood, the avocado.  Called a health food, the Avocado Chocolate Bar is made of freeze-dried avocado pulp powder, 70 percent dark chocolate — plus added sugar — and has nearly 600 calories.

The bar is a convenient, but calorie-laden, snack.  The alternative — consuming whole, fresh plant food — is always a good choice for the brain.

My suggestion:  Eat dark chocolate in moderation if you like it, not because you think it will make you smarter.  For added flavanols, focus on the abundant amounts of this nutrient in grapes and berries.  Enjoy!


Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renowned 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.

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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