660,990 tonnes of chocolate are eaten every year in the UK – that’s around 11 Kg of chocolate per person per year, but are there possible benefits of chocolate?

In general, we are advised not to eat chocolate. The NHS regards chocolate as a high-fat, high-sugar food that we should eat less often and only in small amounts. Many public health measures have been introduced to reduce sugar in food and drink – including chocolate. The British Diabetic Association (BDA) state that chocolate should be eaten only as an occasional treat.

However, recent reports seem to suggest there are benefits of chocolate for our health. Perhaps we should really be eating more chocolate, not less.

Could chocolate really be good for you?

This question all hinges on the definition of the word ‘chocolate.’

Small amounts of dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa solids may have some health benefits. Studies have suggested that dark chocolate may lower blood pressure, improve endothelial (vessel wall) function and reduce platelet aggregation (stickiness). Flavonoids found in cocoa have been shown to improve cerebral blood flow. However, the health benefits of chocolate remain unproven.

The majority of research studies into chocolate are only small, short term and have been set up and sponsored by chocolate manufacturers – who want to sell more chocolate!

Large-scale, long-term, well-conducted, independent studies need to be undertaken before anyone can truly recommend the therapeutic benefits of chocolate.

The health differences between milk chocolate and dark chocolate

The ‘goodness’ in chocolate comes from the percentage of cocoa solids in the product because these contain ‘flavonoids’ – plant substances which appear to have benefits for human health.

But – the average chocolate bar is not made of dark chocolate – it’s made of milk chocolate – meaning extra fat and sugar have been added to the cocoa solids. Plus, many of the health-giving flavonoids have been filtered out in the manufacturing process because these are what give dark chocolate its characteristic bitter taste.

Dr Michael Mosely recommends 2 squares of dark chocolate every day; however, milk chocolate may contain only 25% cocoa solids. The milk in milk chocolate also slows the absorption of flavonoids from the gut into the bloodstream. So, milk chocolate is very different chocolate from the kind of chocolate Michael Mosely is talking about.

Unfortunately, scoffing a conventional milk chocolate bar every day will not make you healthy  – it is likely just to make you obese! 

Which ingredients in chocolate might be harmful?

Both milk and dark chocolate also contain other constituents that can have unpleasant health consequences.

  • Caffeine – This is a CNS stimulant which can make you feel alert and awake and can cause insomnia, especially if eaten too close to bedtime.
  • Theobromine – This is also a CNS stimulant which can make you feel sweaty and trembly, and cause loss of appetite and headaches. It also relaxes the lower oesophageal sphincter and can worsen gastric reflux. People vary in their natural sensitivity to theobromine.
  • Saturated fat – Around 60% of the fat content of chocolate is saturated fat, largely palmitic acid, which is known to raise total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.
  • Chocolate allergy – Cases of an allergic reaction against chocolate have been documented.

Potential other reasons to avoid chocolate

Let’s not forget that chocolate is a high-fat, high-sugar food – a processed food – which is not recommended for any of us, but especially children, for whom it increases the risk of childhood obesity, hyperactivity and mood disorders. These could outweigh the limited benefits of chocolate.

High-sugar foods like chocolate give a sudden spike of glucose but levels quickly fall, making you hungry and on the lookout for another chocolate bar. Foods with a high GI index such as chocolate are more likely to make us overeat and become obese. You are far better off eating foods with a low or medium GI index, as these release energy slowly, making you feel fuller for longer. Brown bread, brown rice and brown pasta are good examples or a medium-sized baked potato.

Although chocolate is not truly addictive, it certainly can cause irresistible cravings and affect the levels of dopamine – a brain neurotransmitter.

dark chocolate
Image: fcafotodigital | iStock

How much chocolate is safe to eat?

Dr Michael Mosely recommends 2 squares of dark chocolate every day. However, 2 squares of 70% cocoa solids, and dark chocolate contains around 120 calories. That’s 6% of a woman’s recommended daily calorie intake, and 5% of a man’s – all gobbled down in a flash!

You need to make sure these calories are counted as part of your daily intake if you want to eat chocolate every day and not put on weight, if you’d like to reap the benefits of chocolate.

When you think you need to walk a mile (over 4000 steps) at a brisk pace, to burn off 100 calories – this puts those 2 squares of chocolate into perspective!

What can you eat as an alternative to chocolate?

Try and curb a sweet tooth by eating plenty of protein, drinking enough water, using plenty of herbs and spices in your cooking, and eating fresh fruit and vegetables. Sweeteners are allowable, but they can cause rebound sugar cravings and in general, they are best avoided. A spoonful of honey is a good alternative, or perhaps a few drops of vanilla flavouring.

  • Make your own healthy cereal bars containing oats, nuts, brown rice and dried fruits. These can be made with only small amounts of added sugar or syrup.
  • Make your own ice lollies or popsicles using natural fruit juice with no added sugar.
  • Try making chia pudding; chia seeds are very good for health, high in protein and fibre and very low in calories.
  • How about homemade popcorn perhaps with a cinnamon flavouring?
  • Hot chocolate may be an option, so long as it is made with unsweetened cocoa powder, and mixed with plant milk, such as almond milk.

Excellent snacks – although these are not sweet – are a small portion of cottage cheese, full-fat Greek yoghurt, or a handful of nuts. If you can educate your taste buds not to constantly expect sweet treats, this is for the best.

How much exercise do you need to do to use up the calories in a chocolate bar?

A 229-calorie Mars Bar will take 42 minutes of brisk walking, or 22 minutes of running on the treadmill, to work off.

Half a family-sized bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk contains 521 calories. So, if – like me – you can easily finish that in front of the TV – that’s more than a 2-hour walk needed the next day to burn it off!

Final thoughts on diet and nutrition

You are what you eat, and it’s certainly a good thing to increase flavonoids in your diet. But these don’t have to be ingested mixed with fat and sugar.

Eating 2 squares of dark chocolate per day is perfectly reasonable if this is part of your daily calorie consumption. But dark chocolate is bitter-tasting, and many people find it unpleasant. Milk chocolate is a different product entirely and is likely to worsen your health, not improve it, so this cannot be substituted. The healthiest dark chocolate contains at least 70% cocoa solids, indicating the benefits of chocolate may not come from processed chocolate, but instead dark chocolate.

There are other ways of getting more flavonoids in your diet. You simply need to eat more beans, pulses, fruit and vegetables – which will help re-educate your sweet tooth at the same time.


This piece was written and provided by Dr Deborah Lee, Dr Fox Online Pharmacy


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