Chocolate. A boost for brain health?

Dark chocolate
Chocolate: My favourite brain food.

Mmmm, chocolate. I really enjoy eating good chocolate as a treat. How boring would life be, without being able to savour end enjoy some really good quality chocolate from time to time.

And it would appear I am not alone.

Australia as a nation ranks ninth in the world consumption of chocolate stakes with each of us eating around 6kgs each year.

(Don’t feel guilty; the Swiss eat 10kgs per head!)

So, having consumed those 30,500 calories, 1750g of fat, 1270g of cholesterol, 4950g sodium, 3550g of carbohydrates and 540 grams of protein, do we need to be concerned with our health as a result?

Does chocolate contribute to disease?

The results of a study from Harvard, reported recently that men over the age of 65 who ate chocolate several times a month actually lived longer than those who overindulged or denied themselves any chocolate at all.

So that would appear to indicate that abstinence is worse than enjoying some chocolate occasionally.

And let’s get rid of the acne myth. Chocolate has absolutely no bearing on acne at all. Even though your mother may have told it eating chocolate would give you pimples. It’s not true. But eating a healthy diet with lots of fruit and vegetables and some chocolate would be the best way to go to keep your skin glowing and healthy.

Obesity. Yes, if you eat too much of anything including chocolate which is a high calorie food, then that can contribute to weight gain which is not good for your general health and may predispose you to diabetes which is definitely not good for your brain. So, hey moderation in all things!

Chocolate is best enjoyed as a small (eg 40 grams) regular treat and make sure it is good quality chocolate preferably dark.

Should chocolate be eaten for health benefits and is it good for our brain?

Chocolate is packed full of goodies.

It contains some important minerals such as magnesium and iron and has lots of antioxidants including Vitamins A1, B1, C, D, E as well as potassium, sodium and calcium.

Over three hundred active substances have been identified in chocolate.

Flavenols and dark chocolate

Cocoa or chocolate contain powerful antioxidants called flavenols. (Also known as phenols and found in blueberries, green tea and red wine) Dark chocolate contains the highest concentration of these. Studies have recently showed some potential benefits of these on blood pressure, as well as providing us with an energy boost and an anxiolytic effect so we feel less stressed.

Sunil Kocher at the Nestle Research Centre in Switzerland (sounds a great place to work!) did a study on 30 men and women where they consumed 40g of dark chocolate a day for 14 days. He measured their stress hormones and the results indicated that eating chocolate may help modulate stress levels.

I could have told him that. Doesn’t everyone eat extra chocolate when feeling stressed?

Another study in the UK by Professor Ian McDonald from Nottingham University using a particularly concentrated flavenol cocoa drink showed increased cerebral blood flow (for a couple of hours) to key areas of the brain in subjects.

This suggests the increased blood flow and hence oxygen supply may be associated with increased brain performance in specific tasks and a boost to general alertness. All sounds promising and a good reason to enjoy some chocolate.

The people who live on Kina Island in Panama have been found to experience virtually no problems with elevated blood pressure. They apparently consume at least 5 cups of cacao drink each day as well as incorporating it in their diet. It’ s also been found that if the inhabitants move to live elsewhere they lose the protective effect for their blood pressure as it is often accompanied by them no  longer drinking and eating the same high amount of cacao.

It appears there is a substance in cacao, which helps the body to process nitric oxide which is essential for healthy blood vessels and hence helps to regulate blood pressure.

Why chocolate makes us feel good.

Chocolate contains other bioactive compounds including caffeine, theobromine, phenylethylamine which are associated with stimulating neurotransmitter production and keeps us alert.  Tryptophan helps to elevate serotonin levels so we feel good and less anxious.

Andapamide (meaning Bliss in Sanskrit) is a neurotransmitter that the brain produces naturally and is also found in chocolate. This works on the brain receptors associated with dopamine release, which is associated with a feeling of well being.

So what’s the verdict on chocolate as a brain food?

It appears that there are some suggested health benefits of eating chocolate.

As with all things just because having some is good for you, doesn’t mean having lots is better. Certainly eating a lot of chocolate adds a significant calorie, sugar and fat burden, which could be of significant detriment to our health.

The evidence appears to support that eating a small (40g) amount of good quality dark chocolate several times a month may be good for our health as a food for our hearts and brains.

So now we don’t have to feel guilty about indulging in and enjoying some chocolate.

And if anyone is wondering, my particular favourite chocolates are the 70% cocoa ones with chilli or orange. Yum.

References:

University of Nottingham (2007, February 22). Boosting Brain Power — With Chocolate.

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/life/2008-02/26/content_6485069.htm

http://www.nutralegacy.com/blog/general-healthcare/breaking-news-eating-chocolate-improves-your-brain-activity/

http://hubpages.com/hub/chocolateaginghealthbenefit

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