If you’ve been following my “What about” series, you know I usually start with some simple parameters:
1. Eat real, whole food: I’m talking high-quality meat, fish and eggs; healthy fats and oils; lots of veggies; and moderate amounts of fruit, nuts and seeds. (For some people, high-quality, full-fat dairy is okay too, as are “occasional, sensible indulgences,” such as dark chocolate.)
2. Avoid: grains, legumes, processed food, added and artificial sweeteners, and chemically altered fats and oils.
When working with Alchemist Eating clients, I add, subtract and tweak these general guidelines based on individual needs and Chinese Medicine food therapy.
My “What about” posts address some questionable item – typically something not explicitly okayed or outlawed within those parameters. The first three weeks were pretty sweet, covering stevia, xylitol and agave.
This week, in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, I’m keeping things sugary but taking a look at an item mentioned in the parameters themselves. Yes, it’s time to ask…
What about dark chocolate?
Now, to be clear, primal parameters list this as a potential, occasional sensible indulgence.
Sorry to disappoint, but this does not mean dark chocolate is one of the New Food Groups.
If I had to pick those, I’d go with: 1. Animal Proteins, 2. Vegetables, and 3. Healthy Fats & Oils. Sideline, supporting roles go to: 1. Fruit, 2. Seeds & Nuts, and 3. High-Quality Dairy (for some people but not everyone).
Still, as the parameters decree, there is room for a grain-free treat every so often.
But why dark chocolate? And what’s “occasional”?
Well, for starters, you might be happy to hear of dark chocolate’s health benefits.
Mark Sisson does an excellent job summarizing these here. To pull key points from his research-backed post:
1. Dark chocolate contains healthy fats. Specifically, cocoa butter is primarily saturated and monounsaturated fat. (Still think saturated fat is unhealthy? It’s not.)
2. Dark chocolate contains polyphenols (in particular, flavanols), and cacao offers more antioxidant action than blueberries, acai berries and other big names in polyphenol circles.
3. Dark chocolate (particularly that with higher cacao content) may lower high blood pressure and improve arterial flow.
4. Dark chocolate may support cardiovascular health and improve blood lipid levels, helping to lower oxidized LDL (the “bad” cholesterol), increase HDL (the “good” cholesterol) and counter progression of arterial plaque formation.
5. Dark chocolate may offer additional, less thoroughly studied benefits, including: improved pancreatic beta cell function and increased insulin sensitivity (that’s a good thing); heightened resistance to UV damage; and therapeutic effects in cases of fatty liver disease.
So, with all those benefits, ready for your chocolate fix?
Uh, not so fast. First, let’s clarify the type of chocolate we’re talking about—because not all chocolate is created equal.
Those benefits above are not coming from M&Ms or Snickers.
The beneficial effects of dark chocolate are derived from the polyphenol content – specifically, bitter-tasting flavanols. Removing some of these favanols gives chocolate a milder taste…and divests it of its superpowers.
What you’re looking for is dark chocolate with a high cacao percentage and low sugar content. Pick one that’s 75% cacao or higher. Ideally, go for 85% (or 100% if you’re hardcore, but there’ll be no sweetness there).
Additional considerations come into play for chocolate connoisseurs, conscious consumers and keener foodies. Ingredient quality, manufacturing processes, and harvesting and trade practices vary widely. Check out another of Mark Sisson’s posts (this one by a Chocolate Professional) for expert advice in this domain.
Oh, and for you primal purists out there, know that most dark chocolate uses soy lecithin as an emulsifier to stabilize ingredients. As with other soy products, this most likely contains GMOs. Not necessarily a deal breaker, but in the best-case scenario, choose soy-free brands.
Speaking of brands, here’s a short list of suggestions:
- Green & Black’s (choose 85% organic)
- Primal Chocolate (made from organic cacao and sweetened with organic maple syrup)
- Raaka Chocolate (soy free, low-temperature roasted, socially responsible)
- Santa Barbara Chocolate (choose soy-free, dark, organic)
- Sweet Riot (gluten free, dairy free, socially responsible)
- Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Lover’s 85% bar (but does contain soy)
So…now that you’ve chosen wisely, time to add an organic, 85% cacao Green & Black’s bar to every meal, right? Wrong!
(Sorry, but this is where “sensible” and “occasional” show up to poop on the party.)
Sure, high-quality dark chocolate can be a divine addition to primal eating, but how much and how often make the difference between being okay and being a problem.
Chocolate – even the dark, high-quality stuff – is okay in very limited quantities. No, seriously. I mean very limited. We’re talking a small square (or perhaps two or three) a day. Max.
The majority of what you consume should come from those top three food groups: 1. Animal Proteins, 2. Vegetables, 3. Healthy Fats & Oils. Not from high-quality candy.
And then there’s that sugar habit question.
(As in, are you feeding one? And if so, will dark chocolate hurt or help?)
Believe it or not, eating a modest amount of 85% dark chocolate (possibly transitioning gradually from 75%) can actually help here.
Treating yourself to a small square of bitter-sweet goodness after dinner (instead of ploughing through that bag of cookies) can support efforts to wean oneself off extreme, obscene sweets.
Just make sure “instead of” doesn’t become “in addition to.” That part is key.
Be really honest with this – perhaps by tracking a week’s food intake with pen and paper.
For some, a little dark chocolate is all it takes to sabotage efforts to break the sugar cycle. One bite and they’re flooded with cravings for more sugar (and/or refined carbs, which are pretty much the same thing so far as metabolic effects).
For others, a little dark chocolate feels totally perfect (and possibly more than enough). While this may seem hard to believe, it’s pretty common among folks who have been eating paleo-primal consistently for at least six months and who have successfully transitioned from “sugar-burner” to “fat-burner.”
If this isn’t you, don’t despair. Just stick to a very “clean” version of paleo-primal eating for the time being and know that your metabolism, tastes and cravings will shift over time.
So…what about dark chocolate? Here’s my take, in short form:
1. For most people, dark chocolate is an acceptable occasional indulgence and a source of healthy fats and polyphenols. It may even help lower high blood pressure, improve cholesterol numbers and support cardiovascular health.
2. Choose your chocolate wisely. Pick 75% cacao content or higher (go for 85% if you can), and select brands that use high-quality, organic ingredients with minimal sugar. (Ideally, also look for soy-free, sustainably harvested and fair-traded.)
3. “How much” and “how often” can make the difference between a healthy indulgence and a problem. A square or two a day – no worries. A bar or two a day – yeah, um, you’ve left the occasional, acceptable zone.
4. Be aware that dark chocolate can help or hinder efforts to kick a sugar habit. Choosing a small square of bitter-sweet 85% instead of cake or cookies can support efforts to get off more extreme, obscene sweets. Just watch the quantity and don’t let “instead of” become “in addition to.”
Be really honest with this – perhaps by tracking a week’s food intake. Pay attention to whether that bite of chocolate leads to cravings for more sweets or refined carbs. The situation (and real answer to “What about dark chocolate?”) is not the same for everyone. It will also shift over time, as consistent paleo-primal eating changes your metabolism, tastes and cravings.
Do you eat dark chocolate? I’d love to know your favorite!
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