Did Somebody Say Chocolate?
February is American Heart Month, bringing attention to cardiovascular health. There are many risk factors for cardiovascular disease, including obesity, elevated blood pressure, smoking, and poor diet can all contribute to cardiovascular disease. Knowing risk factors can help us decrease the risk. And so can mindfulness. And chocolate. Good quality dark chocolate.
Mindfulness is all about bringing a sense of self-awareness to our way of being in the world, and to help us control our physical and mental states. Mindfulness helps us to focus on our body and how it is reacting so that we can make changes, such as calming. This self-awareness to helps to self-regulate blood pressure and heart rate, making it an effective counter against cardiovascular issues.
Eating good quality dark chocolate is another way we can potentially decrease cardiovascular disease. Chocolate is actually good for the heart! While there are many types of chocolate on the market, we’re looking for a pure dark chocolate bar. The ingredients in true dark chocolate include only:
- Cocoa solids/cocoa mass/chocolate liquor
- Cocoa butter
- Vanilla extract
- Soy lecithin – preferably non-GMO or omitted altogether
The addition of milk makes it milk chocolate, and the removal of cocoa solids makes it white chocolate. But unfortunately only dark chocolate has the health benefits we’re seeking!
You can tell dark chocolate by its percentage – this tells us how much sugar vs. cocoa solids are present in the bar. Dark chocolate starts at about 55%, and goes all the way up to 100% (100% = no sugar, and is usually too bitter for most people). But the higher the percentage, the more the health benefits it has. 70-80% is usually a good range for most people.
Chocolate has different flavors to it depending on the ingredients it’s mixed with, as well as where the beans were grown (terroir, just like wine) and how the beans are processed. Beans can be roasted to different degrees like coffee, and then in the manufacturing process, the beans can be ground to different amounts. Some chocolate is made silky-smooth while others are more gritty.
Health benefits of dark chocolate
Besides being delicious, there are several benefits of chocolate on cardiovascular health:
- Cocoa is rich with antioxidants and other powerful plant-based compounds that support blood vessel health.
- Dark chocolate is mineral-rich, a notable source of magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, copper, iron, and zinc. Many people that crave dark chocolate do so because of needing more magnesium!
- The magnesium and other compounds in dark chocolate support muscles including the heart, reduce adrenaline, and help to relax arteries. Relaxed arteries and lower adrenaline decrease blood pressure.
- Plant compounds in dark chocolate decrease total and LDL cholesterol.
- Cocoa is a prebiotic, which supports our gut microbiome. A strong microbiome helps support overall health, including heart health.
- Dark chocolate – especially the higher percentages that are lower in sugar – help with insulin resistance by slowing down the rate at which carbohydrates are broken down and absorbed. This might also make chocolate protective against type II diabetes!
The literature is inconclusive about what a protective amount of dark chocolate would be. In general, several studies suggest that a very dark/high percentage chocolate might be beneficial when consumed at a total of 3 oz per week.
How to enjoy chocolate
The act of eating chocolate might seem very obvious, but being mindful of how we eat is a whole other skill set. Mindfulness in general is helpful at maximizing the benefit we get out of any foods we eat.
Here, chocolate is just a tool for supporting a mindful experience.
Being mindful around eating is beneficial for several reasons:
- Thoughtfulness around sitting down to eat encourages “cephalic digestion,” or the body’s realization that it’s time to eat. When cephalic digestion is occurring, the body produces digestive secretions to get ready to handle the incoming food and ensure it gets broken down and absorbed properly.
- Being aware of what we are eating helps to curb overeating.
When we are being mindful, we want to engage the 5 senses. So take the time to:
- Smell your food
- Look at your food and imagine eating it
- Put the food in your mouth and take the time to taste it and savor or notice the various flavors
- Move the food around in your mouth and notice how it feels. Sticky? Sweet or salty? Melts fast? Dry? Etc.
- Break or chew the food. Does it make any noises?
Swallow once the chocolate or other food becomes a liquid mass.
The chocolate mindfulness/taste test
You can certainly watch the video of my chocolate tasters at work! Catch them below!
Or you can do the mindfulness activity on your own.
- Start with the least dark of the bars.
- Break off a piece of the bar and listen for the snap. Smell the chocolate, and look to see if it’s shiny. What color is it? How does it smell?
- Put the chocolate in your mouth and let it dissolve for a few seconds. How does it feel in your mouth? What flavors are you noticing evolving?
- Gently chew the chocolate. Are new flavors evolving? Is the chocolate smooth or grainy?
Note: if you don’t want to use chocolate, you can use any other foods for this experiment!
Loucks, E. B., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Britton, W. B., Fresco, D. D., Desbordes, G., Brewer, J. A., & Fulwilder, C. (2015). Mindfulness and cardiovascular disease risk: State of the evidence, plausible mechanisms, and theoretical framework.Current Cardiology Reports, 17(12), 112. doi:10.1007/s11886-015-0668-7
Montagna, M. T., Diella, G., Triggiano, F., Caponio, G. R., De Giglio, O., Caggiano, G… & Portincasa, P. (2019). Chocolate, “food of the gods”: History, science, and human health. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(24), 4960. doi:10.3390/ijerph16244960