Being an adult doesn't mean you're too old to enjoy Easter.
Although I feel slightly sheepish admitting to this, my older brother and I still make a point of being home with Mom over the Easter weekend. We're certain, you see, that each of us will wake up to a basket filled to the brim with chocolate eggs.
Although I'm a healthy eater, I've somehow always felt that this is the one day of the year when it's okay to go on a chocolate binge. But just to make sure that there's no guilt when we bite into that bunny, I went in search of a little extra motivation.
A boon to the heart
Dark-chocolate eggs seem to be the way to go. This type of chocolate contains more cocoa, which is rich in flavanoids – antioxidants believed to give the heart a boost.
Cocoa exerts its positive effect on the heart mainly in three ways, researchers have found. Firstly, by keeping the layer of cells that lines the heart and blood vessels healthy; secondly, by lowering blood pressure; and thirdly, by modulating blood-platelet function in a similar way aspirin does.
Study participants with hypertension experienced a significant drop in blood pressure after seven days of eating flavanoid-rich chocolate every day compared with seven days of eating flavanoid-poor chocolate. Another study revealed that 90g of dark chocolate per day over several weeks helped lower blood pressure by an average of 10 percent in people with hypertension.
Other studies have compared the effects of flavanoid-rich cocoa and chocolate on blood-platelet reactivity to that of 81mg aspirin, and found that the positive effects were more or less similar.
Unfortunately, however, it couldn't be found that milk chocolate and white chocolate delivered the same benefits.
While we know the most about dark chocolate's effect on the heart, researchers are also investigating other possible benefits. Here are some of the most prominent findings:
A role in beating chronic fatigue. Adults who ate 45g of dark chocolate containing 85 percent cocoa every day for eight weeks as part of a study on chocolate and chronic fatigue syndrome reported feeling less fatigued after eating chocolate. It's believed that the sweet treat enhances the action of neurotransmitters such as serotonin in the brain, which might explain the positive effect.
A weapon against type 2 diabetes. Researchers found that 90g of dark chocolate per day over several weeks improved the body's sensitivity to insulin. This has clear benefits for people who are insulin resistant or diabetic. On the other hand, 90g of chocolate can lead to weight gain, and excess weight can in itself be a risk factor for diabetes.
A good mood food. Chocolate contains the amino acid tryptophan, which is used by the brain to produce mood-enhancing serotonin. In fact, the BBC reports that high levels of the amino acid can produce feelings of elation, and even ecstasy. Research also shows that another chemical in chocolate, called phenylethylamine, stimulates the brain's pleasure centres. But as chocolate contains only small quantities of these chemicals, researchers aren't certain whether it has a significant effect.
Not an everyday thing
Well, these findings are good enough for me.
Sadly, we still have to watch our chocolate intake during the rest of the year. At about 19g of fat per 100g, more than 10g of chocolate per day (that's only about two blocks) isn't great for the waistline.
Some of the chocolate studies also found benefits only at levels of about 90g per day, which translates to almost a full slab of chocolate! So, sadly, until we've found a way to get the benefits without the bulge, I'll just have to pull my sweet tooth after the Easter weekend.
- (Carine Visagie & HealthDay.com, 2008)
Why Chocolate Makes Us Feel Good (17 November 2004), BBC.co.uk (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/hottopics/chocolate/addictive2.shtml)