February Superfood: Chocolate

Superfood: ‘a nutrient-rich food considered to be especially beneficial for health and well-being.’

Valentine’s Day is synonymous with chocolate. Each February, more people buy chocolate than any other gift. The heart-shaped boxes symbolize love and affection, and they can also represent the heart-healthy benefits chocolate can provide.

But before you go running out and buying a warehouse bag of chocolate kisses, there are distinct differences in chocolate variety. All chocolate is not created equal, nor is it all healthy for you.

Unfortunately, the processing and mass production of chocolate has altered its nutritional value, thus rendering some of it void of nutrients and cacao (the healthy part of chocolate). Today’s cocoa is highly processed and can contain large amounts of sugar, hydrogenated oils, inflammatory fats and artificial flavoring.

The cacao, not the cocoa, is what gives chocolate the title of “superfood.” Chocolates that have higher percentages of cacao are less processed and healthier for you. Dark chocolates (the darker the better) are rich in cacao, which is abundant in antioxidants and flavonoids. These nutrients are proven to be anti-inflammatory and can improve overall health.

When purchasing chocolate, check the label for organic cacao, since it is free of pesticides, fertilizers and harmful toxins. Another rule of thumb is to aim for a minimum of 70 percent cacao, and don’t forget to read ingredients to limit added sugars.

Some heart-healthy benefits of dark chocolate include:

  • Decreases cardiovascular disease by 30 percent
  • Decreases risk of stroke or heart attack
  • Lowers LDL (bad cholesterol)
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Increases insulin sensitivity (lowers diabetes risk)
  • Contains blood thinning properties

In addition to cardiovascular benefits, studies have shown chocolate is also a mild aphrodisiac. While not quite as strong as oysters, chocolate does contain two chemicals that increase romantic desires and arousal: tryptophan and phenylethlamine. Tryptophan helps to increase serotonin production — a chemical in the brain that plays a role in arousal. The brain releases phenylethlamine when someone is falling in love or having feelings of attraction. Most studies show the effects to be mild, but without question still make chocolate a fitting gift this Valentine’s Day! So share that box of dark chocolates with your loved one to keep their heart happy and healthy!

Jaime Coffey Martinez, MS RD, is a registered clinical and integrative dietitian who practices in the DC area and is owner of Nutrition CPR, LLC (www.nutritioncpr.com), a nutrition consulting company providing both one-to-one nutrition coaching and corporate nutrition and wellness programs. Jaime coaches her clients on the importance of choosing real, nutrient-dense foods that will nourish the body, optimize health, and help clients achieve their personal goals.

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