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Chocolate -Top Health Benefits
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February 15, 2009, last updated February 17, 2015

By Susan Callahan, Health Editor and Featured Columnist

So, it's that time of year again. You know the time. The time when the
gods of Chocolate take over our minds and make us over-indulge in the
irresistible deep, brown richness.

Chocolate, whose technical name is "theobroma cacao", is big business.
Americans consume about 11 to 12 pounds of chocolate per person each
year, and the average American eats chocolate 107 times each year,
according to a 2011 release from the National Confectioners Association.
Europeans consume even more, eating up over 40% of the world's supply
of chocolate.   In 2014, the average Swiss person ate 9 kilograms of
chocolate --- 19.8 pounds or 209 regular sized 43 gram chocolate bars ---
according to EuroMonitor International.

But take heart.  New research on the health benefits of chocolate may let
you indulge that passion for chocolate almost guilt-free.

Why Do We Crave Chocolate?

Ever wonder why we reach for chocolate so often? Why exactly do we
crave chocolate rather than, say, milk or bananas? The answer may be
“opioids”. Opioids are natural opium like compounds produced by the
body which raise our sensation of “feeling good” and which may also dull
pain and depression. Our body’s natural system of producing opioids is
triggered when we eat foods high in fat and sugar.

A 1992 study from the University of Michigan School of Public Health
tested this hypothesis by examining a group of 14 female binge eaters, 8
of whom were obese.  A second group of 12 women of normal weight
were used as controls for the study.

These bulimic and obese participants were given drugs which block the
production of opioid in their bodies (naloxone) and then were allowed to
make food choices as they preferred. The study found that once naxolone
was administered, the obese participants’ cravings for chocolate and other
high fat/high sugar foods decreased to the same levels as women of
normal weight.

The reasons for chocolate cravings are more complex since chocolate
contains over 380 compounds, not just sugar and fat. But opioids appear
to be a part of the puzzle as to why we crave the dark sweetness so much.

Another significant part of the puzzle is a compound called "phenyl
ethylamene", which is believed to induce feelings of euphoria similar to
being in love.

So complex is chocolate and so profound is its effect on the moods of
those who crave it that it has been compared to a drug.

In fact, a 1999 study from the University of Arizona entitled “Chocolate:
Food or Drug?”, speculated that chocolate helps to regulate mood by
making up for nutritional deficiencies. As the study noted: “ Chocolate may
be used by some as a form of self-medication for dietary deficiencies (eg,
magnesium) or to balance low levels of neurotransmitters involved in the
regulation of mood, food intake, and compulsive behaviors (eg, serotonin
and dopamine).”

In addition to magnesium, dark chocolate is rich in zinc, which some
experts believe also explains our cravings.

Women often crave chocolate during periods of hormonal fluctuations
such as during menstruation or
menopausal changes, which suggests,
again, that chocolate may be our way of self-medicating to re-balance
hormonal changes.  

Here are the top reasons chocolate is good for your health:

Chocolate Lowers Blood Pressure. According to research, chocolate is
chock full of healthy antioxidant compounds called "flavonoids" or
"flavonols". A research team from the University of l'Aquila  in Italy has
found that people in a study who ate 100 grams of dark chocolate each
day for 15 days lowered their blood pressure.

Chocolate Fights Diabetes. The same study in Italy also found that the
participants improved their body's ability to metabolise sugar, a benefit to
those trying to manage or prevent  diabetes.  

Chocolate Fights Heart and Artery Disease.  A  Harvard University mega-
study examined 136 other studies on cocoa, which is the chief ingredient
in chocolate and cocoa.  Their  examination, published in the European
journal "Nutrition and Metabolism" confirmed that chocolate does improve
heart and artery health.

"Studies have shown heart benefits from increased blood flow, less
platelet stickiness and clotting, and improved bad cholesterol," says Mary
B. Engler, Ph.D., a chocolate researcher and director of the Cardiovascular
and Genomics Graduate Program at the University of California, San
Francisco, School of Nursing. Again, the flavonoids in chocolate work by
counteracting cell damage from free radicals and reducing inflammation.

Other researchers have found similar results.
Dr. Norman Hollenberg of
Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston is a researcher who has studied
a surprising phenomenon among the Kuna tribe of Panama. His team has
found that members of the Kuna tribe who stay on the isolated islands do
not develop hypertension as they age. In contrast, their family members
who left the islands and migrated to the city-life of Panama developed high
blood pressure as they aged. The difference? Dr. Hollenberg's team found
that the
Kuna members who retained healthy blood pressure throughout
their lives consumed huge amounts of cocoa.

4. Chocolate Lowers Cholesterol. A study from the Antioxidant Research
Laboratory at Tufts University has found the people who ate 3.5 ounces of
dark chocolate a day lowered their levels of LDL, "bad cholesterol".
According to Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., director of the lab, participants
who ate the dark chocolate saw their levels of and cholesterol drop. This
study also confirmed the previous work from Italy that chocolate also
lowers blood pressure.

Chocolate Helps Your Skin. Chocolate contains anti-oxidants, powerful
anti-aging compounds. These flavonoids neutralize the free radicals which
cause premature aging of skin. German scientists have found that women
who eat chocolate have facial skin which is less inflamed, more moist,
smoother and had  less redness. Only dark chocolate has this effect.

But what about the calories?  True, 100 grams of chocolate has about 400
calories.  True, eating this much chocolate will make you gain weight. For
this reason, researchers suggest --(and common sense requires!) -- that
you subtract 100 calories of other food if you intend to indulge yourself
with chocolate.

Chocolate Improves Your Memory.  Only one study has found this
result so far. But what they found is astounding. Researchers at West
Virginia's Wheeling Jesuit University found that eating dark chocolate may
boost your memory, attention span, reaction time, and problem-solving
skills by increasing blood flow to the brain.


Chocolate Makes You Smarter?

More studies have established a link between eating chocolate and
thinking better.

One 2012 study by Dr. A . Nehlig of the University of Strasbourg, France
observed that chocolate is rich in antioxidants, particularly the flavonoid
called "epicatechin. These flavonoids apparently enter your brain and
stimulate the delivery of more blood to the capillaries of the brain, a
process known as "perfusion".

The study concluded that, as a result, chocolate provokes the development
of new brain cell neurons (neurogenesis) and the growth of new blood
vessels (angiogenesis) as well as improving the regions of the brain
responsible for learning new things and your memory.

Hold on a second before you decide to gorge on chocolate to improve
your brain. The Swiss eat more chocolate than any other people on earth,
approximately 11.9 kilograms (26 pounds) per person each year.

However, if you look at the worldwide rates of death from Alzheimer's and
dementia, the Swiss rank 6th out of over 200 countries. So, even if there
is something in dark chocolate that protects the brain, perhaps there is not
enough of it per chocolate bar to outweigh the damage to the brain from
all the other fat and sugar in chocolate.

Chocolate Helps Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

A 2006 study from Hull York Medical School has discovered that eating
chocolate appears to relieve many of the  symptoms of chronic
fatigue syndrome

Chocolate Makes You Feel Better and a Little Aroused. Scientists are
getting closer to understanding why we humans are so in love with
chocolate. The two main active ingredients in chocolate are flavonoids,
which we have discussed above, and  compounds called "methylxanthines".

Several studies, including a 2013 study from researchers at the Center for
Applied Medical Research, Navarra University in Pamplona, Italy have
confirmed that methylxanthines act on our nervous systems to make us
happier, more content and sexually aroused.

The two types of methylxanthines present in chocolate are caffeine and
theobromine. Chocolate has way more theobromine than caffeine. In fact
the ratio of theobromine-to-caffeine can vary from 2 to 10, depending on
the chocolate. In other words, there may be up to 10 times more
theobromine than caffeine in the chocolate you eat.

Theobromine is the substance in chocolate that makes it toxic for dogs, by
the way. But for us humans, theobromine is not toxic.  

Caffeine and theobromine act like happiness-creators on our nervous
systems, making us feel better, concentrate better and even feel "in love".

As the study observed: "Methylxanthines, acting on adenosine receptors in
the central nervous system, enhance arousal, mood, and concentration

Well, there had to be a good reason that chocolate has become the food
we like to share on Valentine's Day!

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