Is dark chocolate good for you?
If you’ve read my free ebook, Primal Eating with Ease, you know I like to keep food rules super-simple. Really, rather than rules, I start with parameters:
- 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 indulgences, such as dark chocolate.)
- Avoid: grains, legumes, processed food, added and artificial sweeteners, and chemically altered fats and oils.
Even if you don't eat this way all the time, these parameters are what I ask people to shoot for. When working with coaching clients, I tweak them based on a handful of variables:
- Individual needs, goals and preferences (I meet you where you are; often it comes down to weighing tradeoffs – without judgement.)
- Individual eating identity (Did you know you can be paleo AND vegetarian?)
- Functional medicine nutrition therapy (More than a diet, this addresses your whole body-mind ecology.)
- Chinese Medicine food therapy (The "original" functional medicine, this stuff works!)
When coaching, sweets and treats are often a place of focus. So in the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, I thought I'd cover a treat mentioned in the parameters but falling in a grey zone, answering...
Is dark chocolate good for you?
To be clear, primal parameters list this as a potential, occasional 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:
- Animal proteins
- Healthy fats & oils
Sideline, supporting roles go to:
- Nuts & seeds (for some people but not everyone)
- High-quality, full-fat dairy (for some people but not everyone)
Still, as the parameters decree, there is room for a treat every so often. But why dark chocolate? And what’s “occasional”?
For starters, you might be happy to hear of dark chocolate’s health benefits.
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 superfood 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 fatty liver disease.
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. The above benefits are not coming from M&Ms or Snickers.
The beneficial effects of dark chocolate are derived from the polyphenol content and, specifically, bitter-tasting flavanols. Removing some of these favanols gives chocolate a milder taste...and weakens its superpowers.
What you’re looking for is dark chocolate with a high cacao percentage and low sugar.
Pick one that’s 75% cacao or higher. Ideally, go for 85% (or 100% if you’re hardcore).
Additional considerations come into play for chocolate connoisseurs, conscious consumers and keener foodies. Ingredient quality, manufacturing processes, and harvesting and trade practices vary widely.
Oh, and for you primal purists, 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 are my current loves (please meet me with yours in the comments!):
- Green & Black’s (choose 85% organic)
- Primal Chocolate (made from organic cacao, sweetened with organic maple syrup)
- Raaka Chocolate (soy free, low-temperature roasted, socially responsible)
- Raw Magic Chocolate (organic, honey-sweetened, hand-crafted in nearby Winlaw, BC)
- Taza (95% Wicked Dark, be still my heart)
Now that you’ve chosen wisely, time to add an organic, 85% cacao 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 limited quantities. No, seriously. I mean limited. We're talking a small square (or perhaps two or three:) a day.
The majority of your food should come from those top three food groups: 1. Veggies, 2. Animal proteins, 3. Healthy fats & oils. Not from high-quality candy.
then there’s the sugar habit question.
As in, are you feeding one? 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 when it comes to 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 those 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...is dark chocolate healthy?
Here’s my take, in short form:
1. For most people, dark chocolate is a lovely 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 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 real answer to “Is dark chocolate healthy?” is not the same for everyone. It will also shift over time, as consistent paleo-primal eating changes your metabolism, tastes and cravings.
So enjoy some dark chocolate this Valentine’s Day...or buy your sweetie a single-origin, soy-free, fair-traded, sustainably harvested, 85% cacao bar:).
But if you’re struggling with a sugar habit (or working with other sorts of cravings), you might snag a copy of my Sugar Addiction ebook too!
It offers 5 healing steps for working with sugar addiction...and costs less than an extra-fancy box of chocolates;).