When I read that in her last years, Jeanne Calment, the oldest woman to ever live ate a kilogram of chocolate, or more, each week, I wondered whether eating chocolate is the secret of longevity? Jeanne also doused her food in olive oil as well as using olive oil on her skin and if you have read my books or heard my talks, you will know why consuming high quality olive (or sesame) oil daily is critical for healthy ageing.
Is chocolate healthy? How much should we eat?
In 2009, a Swedish study assessed death from heart attacks in a particularly high-risk group of people. These were all nondiabetics who had been hospitalized with a first heart attack who volunteered to keep a food diary for the next five to ten years. The results surprised the researchers who found that after an average of 8.5 years, the patients who reported eating chocolate twice or more per week were 66% less likely to suffer a cardiac death compared to those who reported never eating chocolate. These results were adjusted for possible differences in demographic and socioeconomic variables, consumption of coffee and confectionary and there was a strong inverse relationship between chocolate consumption and death from heart attacks. These researchers did find, however, that total mortality was not associated with chocolate consumption!
So why is eating chocolate so good for you?
There could be several reasons. One might be the high content of ‘phenolics’ but the other might be that chocolate is rich in iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, zinc and selenium, most of which are needed for the function of several of our key ‘defence’ ‘superoxide dismutase enzymes.
One 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70–85% cocoa contains:
- 11 grams of fibre
- 67% of the RDI for iron
- 58% of the RDI for magnesium
- 89% of the RDI for copper
- 98% of the RDI for manganese
- It also has plenty of potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium
The fatty acid profile of cocoa and dark chocolate is also excellent. The fats are mostly saturated and monounsaturated, with small amounts of polyunsaturated fat.
In addition to these easily identified elements, Cocoa contains more phenolic antioxidants than most foods. There are a range of organic compounds called flavonoids that include sub-types called catechin, epicatechin, and procyanidins. Each of these have been shown to play important roles as antioxidants. The complex tricyclic (3 carbon ring) structure of the flavonoids determines antioxidant effects that scavenge reactive oxygen species. They also bind the iron and copper ions Fe2+ and Cu+, inhibit several enzymes, and upregulate antioxidant defences.
Cocoa is the richest known source of a chemical called Epicatechin, which is also found in Green Tea.
Epicatechin benefits: To date there have been several studies on the benefits of Epicatechin but there need to be more studies undertaken. To date, the benefits have been listed as:
- It enhances muscle growth and strength naturally
- Because it Increases nitric oxide production, it improves vascular function including blood flow
- It improves insulin sensitivity, regulates blood sugar levels and stimulates muscle protein synthesis
- Through Its natural antioxidant properties, it reduces cholesterol
- It improves both brain and heart health
Other beneficial cardiovascular effects of chocolate are mediated through the anti-inflammatory effects of various cocoa polyphenols. These antioxidant effects of cocoa may directly influence insulin resistance and, in turn, reduce risk for diabetes.
In addition, cocoa consumption may stimulate changes in various pathways involved in gene expression and the immune response. Cocoa also protects nerves from injury and inflammation.
Possibly even more importantly than its wonderful physiological effects, there are several studies that show that dark chocolate can improve our brain function as well as making us feel happier!
How much should we eat?
While the research supports that dark chocolate, especially 85% and higher has many beneficial health effects, I would suggest that you wait till you are over 100 before you consume a kilogram a week! Nevertheless, it is clear that a few pieces of dark chocolate is a very healthy snack and besides the fact that I love it, it’s the reason I have some every day!