Friday, January 30, 2009

A Chocolate Diet: A Sweet Spot in Budget-Conscious Times

In these stressful economic times, people seem to be cutting corners on their nutrition. McDonald's has reported strong fourth-quarter results in 2008 and alas, are opening another 650 franchises in 2009. When one Big Mac consists of more than a day's worth of fat and sodium intake, you can see how worrisome this news can be.

But another food area that appears to be booming has more promise. Chocolate sales are rising. While there is some dispute over which areas of the industry (inexpensive bars or premium chocolate) are rocking out, fingers crossed that it is the dark chocolate that will win out. If chocolate is 70 percent cacao or higher, you're actually helping your heart--and possibly your waist line! Here's why:

Chocolate is basically derived from beans of cacao trees so they're plant-based just like broccoli and squash. This means they're full of fiber, health-promoting antioxidants and other promising natural compounds.

These antioxidants, called flavanols, hold a huge array of health benefits. For example, a recent Hypertension journal article found that chocolate's flavanols may help regulate blood sugar production--preventing the spikes that can cause overeating. In addition, the fiber-rich dark chocolate can actually make you feel satiated as long as a small apple.

Chocolate's flavanols also seem to increase circulation, according to Dr. Ralph Felder, author of The Bonus Years Diet. Better blood flow means increased circulation to the brain to keep you alert. It also gives us a younger complexion because an increased blood flow boosts collagen levels to thwart the production of wrinkle-causing free radicals. Finally, it deters artery-clogging clots that can cause heart attacks.

The dark stuff also seems to have feel-good chemicals. Neuroscientists at the University of California found that chocolate contains a chemical called anandamides that give us an ego boost and more self-confident.

Finally, chocolate also has the healthful MUFA (monounsaturated fat) like olive oil. This means that all those studies that are showing how trimming the Mediterranean diet is for our tummies includes the nutrients of dark chocolate.

Just make sure you stick to the darkest kinds for guilt-free snacking. They're way less processed than lighter chocolates and have none of the fattening dairy that milk chocolate is rich in.

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