Guilt Free Deserts

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Westerners have been fools for chocolate ever since the Spanish conquistadors discovered it at Montezuma's Mexican court. And why not? The cocoa bean is a good source of energy, fiber, protein, carbohydrates, B vitamins, and minerals (one ounce of dark sweet chocolate has 12 percent of the iron and 33 percent of the magnesium a healthy woman needs each day).

Nutritionwise, the rap on chocolate is that cocoa butter (the fat in chocolate) is 59 percent saturated fat, primarily stearic acid. But nobody seems to have told stearic acid that it's a villain. Unlike other saturated fats, stearic acid neither increases LDLs ("bad cholesterol") nor lowers HDLs ("good cholesterol"). In addition, stearic acid makes blood platelets less likely to clump together into a blood clot, thus lowering you risk of heart attack or stroke.

And don't forget the phytosterols, steroidlike compounds in plants that sop up cholesterol in your gut and zip it out of your body before it reaches your bloodstream. Phytosterols, the heart-healthy ingredients in Take Control and Benecol margarines, are found in cocoa beans and chocolate, leading canny researchers at the University of California-Berkeley Division of Cardiovascular Medicine and the Department of Nutrition to investigate whether drinking a cocoa beverage once a day or eating a chocolate chew twice a day can lower cholesterol levels in postmenopausal women.

In addition, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in January 2006 credits the cocoa compound (-)epicatechin (translation: minus epicatechin) with the ability to help blood vessels relax. And as we all know, relaxing your blood vessels means lowering your blood pressure — and your risk of heart attack.

Does all this mean chocolate is a bona fide health food? Not yet. But is chocolate healthful as part of a balanced diet? You bet. Especially because it's a veritable happiness cocktail containing caffeine (a mood elevator and central nervous system stimulant), theobromine (a muscle stimulant), phenylethy-lamine (another mood elevator), and anandamide, a chemical that stimulates the same areas of the brain that marijuana does. No, eating chocolate won't get you high. You'd have to consume 25 pounds or more at one sitting to get the smallest marijuana-like effect. Nonetheless, I think chocolate was Montezuma's way of making up for his, ahem, "revenge."

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