A press release from Loma Linda University reports that two new studies show dark chocolate consumption reduces stress and inflammation, while improving memory, immunity and mood. These are wonderful results from human trials and if you’re like most of us I’m sure this subject brings great delight! However (and sorry to be the party-pooper here), there are a number reasons why you may want to hold back on the excitement: if you’re addicted to chocolate and/or sugar this is a big red flag, and if dietary oxalates and caffeine are issues for you then this news won’t be good. But there may be ways you can get some of the benefits without the harmful effects (more on that below).
These papers were presented as posters at the Experimental Biology 2018 annual meeting in San Diego, and the press release reports that
dark chocolate with a high concentration of cacao (minimally 70% cacao, 30% organic cane sugar) has positive effects on stress levels, inflammation, mood, memory and immunity. While it is well known that cacao is a major source of flavonoids, this is the first time the effect has been studied in human subjects to determine how it can support cognitive, endocrine and cardiovascular health.
Lee S. Berk, a researcher in psychoneuroimmunology and food science from Loma Linda University, School of Allied Health Professions, served as principal investigator on both studies and stated the following:
For years, we have looked at the influence of dark chocolate on neurological functions from the standpoint of sugar content – the more sugar, the happier we are. This is the first time that we have looked at the impact of large amounts of cacao in doses as small as a regular-sized chocolate bar in humans over short or long periods of time, and are encouraged by the findings. These studies show us that the higher the concentration of cacao, the more positive the impact on cognition, memory, mood, immunity and other beneficial effects [such as enhanced neuroplasticity].
The flavonoids found in cacao are extremely potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, with known mechanisms beneficial for brain and cardiovascular health.
In these 2 small studies (which have yet to be published in a peer-review journal) the consumption of 48g of 70% dark organic chocolate offered many of these health benefits in as quickly as 30 mins (in one the study) and when consumed every day for a week (in the other study).
In case you’re wondering how much this means in practical terms: 48 g is just over an ounce and a half, or 2 tablespoons. So think about 2 squares of 70% dark chocolate.
But are you addicted to chocolate? And do you binge?
I know I sounded like a real party pooper in the introduction but if your eyes lit up or you even got a little teary-eyed or felt a really warm “I so deserve this treat” glow or you felt realy joy at the thought of indulging (or maybe all of the above emotions) when you read the subject line then these may be red flag for you. But despair not as there are ways to help you not overdo it and binge on a week’s supply of dark chocolate in one sitting. If you relate to the binge comment you know exactly what I mean and have felt that deep regret and shame afterwards.
Lorraine shares this about her chocolate addiction:
the minute I start eating it – I am like a heroin addict. I can’t stop. I end up bingeing for a few weeks as it’s all I can think about. It’s the weirdest thing – so I mainly abstain from it and have a slip, binge, anxiety relapse about once a year until I am able to buckle down and fight the cravings knowing the anxiety is not worth the euphoria.
For some people the anxiety that is caused by chocolate is too severe (more on that below) but if Lorraine’s anxiety and bingeing are related there may be a solution for her and if yes, it would be the GABA solution below.
The brain chemistry balancing solution for bingeing
Cravings for chocolate can often be due to brain chemical imbalances and when these are addressed no willpower is required and there are no feelings of being deprived. Here is a simple way to help you figure it out:
- if you have to eat chocolate when you haven’t eaten in awhile it’s likely low blood sugar and glutamine on the tongue stops the desire on the spot
- if you stress-eat your chocolate cravings are likely due to low GABA, and GABA will stop the stress-eating and calm you down
- if you eat chocolate to feel happy (and especially from late afternoon onwards) then your cravings are likely due to low serotonin, and tryptophan stops the cravings and boosts mood and reduces anxiety
- if you eat chocolate for an energy boost then it’s likely due to low catecholamines and tyrosine will stop those cravings and give you a mood and energy boost
- if you are a comfort-eater then it’s likely due to low endorphins and DPA will stop that “I deserve-it-reward-eating” and also give you a hug-like mood boost
Once you have this figured out this brain balancing there is no bingeing, you can eat a small portion and feel very satisfied and will actually address some mood and anxiety issues at the same time!
Dark chocolate is a no-no if dietary oxalates are an issue for you
When considering high oxalate foods, 41mg and above is considered an exceptionally high oxalate food. In one study, the total oxalate contents of 34 samples of dark chocolate collected from 13 different countries ranged from 155 to 485 mg/100 g which equates to around 77 to 240mg for 48g. So dark chocolate does need to be avoided and I would not even consider eating some even with calcium citrate or magnesium citrate.
In a related study published last year by lead author Professor Lee Birk, Is Chocolate Beneficial for Brain Health? the 20 subjects were subjected to a sequence of cacao sensory awareness tasks ranging from:
- recall of past experiences
- imagine eating chocolate right now
- visualization/looking at real chocolate
- olfaction [or sense of smell]
- taste but not swallow
- and finally chocolate consumption (70% cocoa bar) to satiation
And for many the above provided benefits for them. For me a good long deep sniff of dark chocolate feels quite satisfying, as strange as it may sound.
I do sometimes miss the texture of melted chocolate but solid coconut butter satisfies that need. Believe it or not, but so does pemmican, a savory snack that is made with beef fat and beef jerky, honey/cherries and sea salt. Check out pemmican from US Wellness Meats here (my affiliate link).
Avoid it if the caffeine causes anxiety, insomnia, heart palpitations and/or migraines
For many of my clients the caffeine in dark chocolate can cause anxiety, insomnia, heart palpitations and/or migraines. Some of these “twitchy” effects may also be due to the theobromine, a chemical compound, which roughly translates to “food of the gods” and is also what makes chocolate deadly for dogs.
I have to admit that chocolate would be my “drug” of choice before cakes, cookies or sweets. Putting aside the oxalate issues, it also affects my sleep and creates mild anxiety/sort of edginess with mild heart palpitations with restless sleep. This is how I remember a coffee buzz feeling. But worse than this is the migraine I get a day or 2 days later. It is wicked pain above my left eye that leaves me horizontal for a day. So, no chocolate for me unfortunately, other than enjoying the aroma of it.
Carob as a delicious alternative
Carob is a delicious alternative to dark chocolate as it doesn’t contain caffeine and is lower in oxalates. It has a definite chocolate-like flavor.
A 2002 study found that carob may actually have calming effects. It is also antioxidant rich, contains the polyphenol gallic acid which has been shown to help metabolic syndrome, has chemoprotective properties and helps with digestion.
Organic and Fair Trade of course
If you can get to enjoy dark chocolate be sure to consume only organic as cocoa plants are heavily sprayed, Other than the concerns with the actual pesticides and insecticides, there is cause for concern about raised copper levels because of copper-based pesticides.
Fair Trade is a global movement made up of a diverse network of producers, companies, shoppers, advocates, and organizations putting people and planet first
I know I’m going to get questions on what brands I recommend that are organic, Fair Trade and gluten-free so here goes – Vital Choice is my pick right now.
Vital Choice has quality dark chocolate that is both organic and Fair Trade. It is labeled gluten-free but they state it is “Manufactured on shared equipment with products containing wheat, milk, peanuts, and tree nuts.” I have not had any reports of anyone having a gluten issue with it but please use your own discretion. Here is the link to check them out and make a purchase (it is my affiliate link). Simply search for dark chocolate.
Feel free to share how you do with dark chocolate and how it makes you feel when you consume it and be sure to post any questions you may have.
And if you know of brands that are organic, Fair Trade and gluten-free please do share them.