Chocolate – consider the type before you take a bite

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Oh, who doesn’t like chocolate? Any excuse to eat some and then have a little more seems to make reasonable sense. Any occasion will do for chocolate consumption in some form or another. Luckily, there actually have been proven health benefits to eating chocolate. These include lowering cholesterol, reducing the risk for diabetes, boosting brain health, and even fighting inflammation in the body. Sounds too good to be true and the catch is that not all chocolate is created equally and not every form of chocolate is created the same. So, let’s compare what the benefits and/or consequences of eating half a bar of dark chocolate vs milk chocolate are…..

Dark chocolate vs milk chocolate

Pros – cons

A half bar of dark chocolate contains about 250 calories, 26% fat, and 50% saturated fat, and 5 grams of monosaturated fat. A half bar of milk chocolate contains about 220 calories, 18% fat, 40% saturated fat, and 3 grams of monosaturated fat. Dark chocolate’s key winning attribute is that it contains fewer carbohydrates at 6% as the result of a few factors. It has 10 grams of sugar compared to 21 grams of sugar in milk chocolate, so that’s practically 50% less sugar. Dark chocolate also has four times the amount of fiber (16 grams) compared to milk chocolate (4 grams). You could have guessed with the name milk chocolate that is contains more calcium at 8% compared to 3% in milk chocolate. Fiber and calcium are certainly needed in our diets so dark chocolate as a source of these is quite appealing.

Believe it or not, chocolate does contain iron so you could say that chocolate makes you stronger. Dark chocolate has 28% iron and milk chocolate has 6%. Dark chocolate also has more magnesium at 23% compared to 7% in milk chocolate. Potassium is also higher in dark chocolate (8% versus 4%) and has much less sodium (0.3% versus 1.3%). Dark chocolate also more zinc (9% versus 6%) and has less cholesterol (0.3% versus 3%). For caffeine lovers, dark chocolate also wins at 32 mg compared to 8 mg in milk chocolate. Finally dark chocolate wins again as it contains 324 mg of theobromine versus 82 mg in milk chocolate, which is the element of cocoa that helps lower blood pressure. Over and over, dark chocolate beats milk chocolate among these comparisons.

If we were to tally up the scores, dark chocolate would be the winner.

You might also feel less guilty buying and eating dark chocolate because of all the antioxidants it contains which are great for your heart. Always look at the amount of sugar any type of chocolate bar contains and even some dark chocolate brands are better options than others. Look at the ingredients and aim for those that have higher cocoa percentages (preferably 10% of more).

Oh yeah, and keep in mind that portion control. The score card above was based on only eating half of a bar. Sugar is sugar whether dark or milk chocolate so even though natural sugar found in fruit might be nutritionally better for us, the body still recognizes sugar in any form in the same way. Nutrition labels are there for a reason, so read them and decide the best option out of the selection.

Best benefit

Flavonoids are a type of phytonutrient found in chocolate and they’re also found in fruits vegetables and wine. So just like the debate about wine being good or bad for us, chocolate can fall under that controversial category similar to wine because of the phytonutrients. Flavonoids have the power to reverse cellular damage especially those associated with heart disease. Because flavonoids help with vascular function, this in turn can help lower blood pressure. The research on this is limited, but at least in the short term is credible. Chocolate is sometimes served in the shape of a heart, so not only is it a sign of love, passion, and affection, but the heart can be symbolic of helping your heart health.

Not that you need it, but here are 5 other reasons you can make the case to eat chocolate, preferably the dark kind:

1. Stress relief – the feel good hormone, serotonin, is released when you enjoy chocolate. This is because chocolate has magnesium which has a calming effect. Many people turn to chocolate when cortisone levels rise as tension gets high in their personal matters. The feel good effect of chocolate seems to suppress the stress and there actually is reason behind this.  

2. Weight loss – seems contradictory, but some studies have shown that eating chocolate can reduce insulin resistance because of the healthy fats it contains. The healthy fats slow down how sugar is absorbed in the bloodstream which helps control spikes in sugar. This in turn can help keep blood sugars stable.

3. Antioxidants – chocolate has plenty (included are flavonoids) which help fight free radical damage. Damage to these cells can contribute to heart disease, cancer, aging, and even Alzheimer’s disease. Every day as we perform functions, we are breaking down the cells that we use, so replenishment and repair are important, and of course, the quicker the better.

4. Curb your appetite – some dietitians claim that eating a small amount of dark chocolate everyday (yes, everyday) can help curb cravings for sugar and other candy. Sometimes knowing that you can have something doesn’t leave you feeling deprived. Rebellion can lead to binging so pacing yourself with a little nightly treat can ward off your appetite for desserts galore.

5. Make you smarter – it’s a stretch, but the association has been made that the countries who have the highest amount of chocolate consumption per capita also have the highest number of Nobel Prize Winners. Cognitive and visuals functions have also said to improve. Cocoa flavanols (CF) influence physiological processes.

Latest chocolate health trend

Drinking chocolate milk has hit the workout scene by storm. Now instead of eating chocolate in a solid form, you drink it typically in powder form or syrup mixed with milk. It is most popularly used now for exercise recovery although some do use it for a boost in energy pre-workout. Mixing chocolate with milk now adds the nutrients from milk to those benefits of chocolate. These include high amounts of calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin A and D, protein, and potassium.

Benefits of chocolate milk

1. Nutrients – chocolate milk contains all of the following: phosphorus, Riboflavin, zinc, magnesium, iodine, B1, B6, and B12. All of these help with growth and body functioning.

2. Carbohydrates – although given a bad rap, carbs are actually needed for energy. Your brain functions on glucose found in carbohydrates. Unlike other energy drinks, chocolate milk has a 4:1 carbohydrate:protein ratio.

3. Calcium – This is a must for strong bones, which milk contains and this wards off osteoporosis, as well as the risk for fractures and bone diseases. Having a little chocolate mixed in adds taste to this benefit.

4. Protein – chocolate milk is loaded with protein which is great for our muscles. Some bodybuilders even add chocolate flavored protein powder to their chocolate milk for an added bonus.

5. Electrolytes – part of chocolate milk’s post workout recovery use is the replenishment of electrolytes. This drink provides water, but also magnesium, potassium, sodium, and calcium. Magnesium is particularly useful for muscle recovery.

Reading nutrition labels is necessary when it comes to chocolate milk as some might be higher in sugar and carbohydrates than others. The sweeter it is, typically the more added sugar there is for taste, which is another case of something being too good to be true. There’s a nutritional difference between chocolate milk sold for children and that on the shelves sold for adults and families.

Final thought

Dark chocolate is the reining champion when it comes to the healthiest chocolate choice. It appears that dark chocolate milk (which is not readily found or considered) would be the overall winner with the combination of benefits. Dark chocolate wins, but that doesn’t mean you can skip out on the calories and fat on whatever that dark chocolate is covering or part of when eating it. So, either have it with the milk or just as a bar because when pretzels, nuts, cake, cookies, raisons, ice creams, pies, and pastries become part of that dark chocolate, the game changes and the winner might not be the same. Yet again, one might then consider dark chocolate cake or dark chocolate almonds as their justification.

We might not be perfect in our eating habits, but sometimes the plan of attack can be choosing the better of the options that we shouldn’t be having all the time. If late night snacking taunts you and candy is your nemesis, then it might be a good idea to keep individually sized dark chocolate bites available. As mentioned, maybe just having this small amount even if it is a nightly occurrence, will offset worse choices and succumbing to having more in quantity and more frequently. Dark chocolate has proven its health worth.

Chocolate, “Food of the Gods”: History, Science, and Human Health (nih.gov)

Cocoa and Chocolate in Human Health and Disease (nih.gov)

Understanding American premium chocolate consumer perception of craft chocolate and desirable product attributes using focus groups and projective mapping (plos.org)

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Megan Johnson McCullough owns a fitness studio in Oceanside CA called Every BODY's Fit. She has an M.A. in Physical Education & Health Science, is a current candidate for her Doctorate in Health & Human Performance, and she's an NASM Master Trainer & Instructor. She's also a professional natural bodybuilder, fitness model, Wellness Coach, and AFAA Group Exercise Instructor.