February is the month when we are all drawn to those elegant foil-wrapped boxes of candy given to us by our loved ones (or hoarded as treats for ourselves.) I have some ideas to share about chocolate, though, so here's some food for thought as you wander down those red, gold, and silver aisles in the candy store.
I get a big kick out of mentioning chocolate when I give presentations about the healing powers of foods. (Let me tell you, people get kind of tired of hearing about broccoli and garlic!) Here's the background: in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA 2002;287:2212) researchers from the University of California at Davis noted that chocolate is rich in some powerful anti-oxidant components called "flavonols" that your
cardiovascular system will really appreciate. Flavonols help keep your LDL ("bad") cholesterol from oxidizing, which means turning rancid, basically yuck. They also help keep plaque from building up inside your blood vessels, and keep your blood fluid and slippery all good things. Did you know that in some cultures, chocolate was used as medicine or money--even believed to have magic powers? These health effects might be part of the reason why. Chocolate flavonols are
good for you even if you don't have a broken heart that needs mending. Another recent study from Germany suggested that eating dark (but not white!) chocolate can bring down an elevated blood pressure a little bit.
Most of the research about chocolate was funded by the chocolate manufacturers (surprise!), but since multiple reputable researchers are seeing similar results, it seems safe to go ahead and be mindfully tempted by their findings. Dark semi-sweet chocolate seems to have the most flavonols so if you indulge, go for Dove or Godiva or Ghirardelli. Interestingly, the kind of fats in chocolate (stearic and palmitic acids) seem not to have the adverse effects on
cholesterol levels that other saturated fats can. But watch quantity and frequency! In the study reported in JAMA, participants ate the equivalent of three Dove dark chocolate squares a day. That's a LOT of chocolate! For most of us, it's way too much refined sugar and fat, so don't fool yourself that eating chocolate is a sensible comprehensive approach to cardiovascular health. But from time to time, probably okay for those of us without blood sugar problems or allergies .
. . just use your common sense!
I've noticed that when I talk about this with a group of women, there are giggles and whispers and expressions of guilty delight, as though finally permission has been given for indulgence in a secret nasty habit. Chocolate has become almost a joke among women, and our need for it is sometimes like a need for a drug. We crave it when our hormones are fluctuating "I need some chocolate!" reflects a particular emotional state you know what I mean, right?
(Don't get me wrong I enjoy chocolate too, and my examining room boasts a big crystal bowl of semi-sweet chocolates for my clients to enjoy when their physical is over.) But listen, I have to tell you this chocolate is supposed to be an occasional treat, and it is also supposed to be optional.
If you're craving chocolate regularly (say, more than once a week) or keep a secret stash for when things get really lousy, or if you tend to have more than a piece or two at a time, or have ever raided your kitchen for the baking chocolate your body is trying to get your attention because there's something else going on. Chocolate (well, any sweet food will do this, but chocolate seems to do it especially well) gives you a quick lift of the feel-better brain
chemical serotonin, and stimulates the same pain-relief receptors in the body that narcotics work on. The problem is that after that lift, you get a crash, usually to a worse emotional state than when you started. This is a vicious cycle for women, and I see it all the time. It's really hard on your body, especially the hormone system. Maybe you have already experienced this.
Women with serious chocolate habits are usually missing some important basic nutrients from their diet especially if they notice that the cravings kick up just before a menstrual period. Cravings actually have some logic to them (our bodies are pretty smart), because some of those missing nutrients are present in the chocolate. Chocolate is rich in magnesium, which helps muscles to relax; copper, which is important for nerve function; potassium, which
supports the whole cardiovascular system, and even calcium. Making some adjustments to your usual food habits and adding a high-quality vitamin supplement can make a dramatic difference in your body's yearning for these things. Exploring cravings can also offer an opportunity to look at what's going on in your life that you're needing comfort for, compensation for, or just indulgence. Is your spirit calling you to make a change? Are you at the bottom of your own to-do list?
Chocolate cravings are an important clue that you're really needing something else!
So if you're needing regular infusions of chocolate, let's talk. Cold turkey on chocolate? Never. But a balanced relationship? Absolutely!