The holidays are approaching, which means that most likely you will be surrounded by opportunities to indulge in chocolate treats. Therefore, you may be wondering: Is chocolate healthy? The answer, surprisingly, is that extra dark chocolate is GREAT for brain health. While pure cocoa is best, this may be too bitter for anyone with a sweet tooth, so a good rule of thumb is to go for chocolate that is 85% cocoa or more. Basically, the darker the chocolate, the better it is for your brain. Sorry milk chocolate lovers, milk chocolate does not meet these requirements. While we’re on the subject of unhealthy chocolate, forget about white chocolate as well, which, according to my cousin, a Chocolatier and owner of Chocolate Accents in Florida, technically isn't even chocolate at all.

The fact is for over 20 years, I've been toting the benefits of dark chocolate to my patients with a brain injury, such as  someone with a concussion, stroke, MS, Parkinson Disease, Autism and ADHD. I've even included this information in my newest book, Coping with Concussion and Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. Luckily, it seems that this notion of dark chocolate being healthy is becoming more widely known, and recently there was even a segment on the evening news discussing recent research on how eating dark chocolate was good for memory, especially for seniors.

History of Chocolate

It is interesting that over 500 years ago, Christopher Columbus, brought back cocoa from the Inca, Aztec, and Maya, who discovered the medicinal properties of cocoa in 600 AD for treating stomach and intestinal problems. According to the website Foodtimeline.org, “The basic Aztec method of preparing chocolate was about the same as that prevalent among the Maya; the only real difference is that it seems to have been drunk cool rather than hot as seems to have been the case among the Maya of Yucatan. One of the earliest notices of this drink is by the hand of a man known to scholars as the Anonymous Conqueror, described as ‘a gentleman of Hernan Cortez’, who’s description of Tenochtitlan was published in Venice in 1556: These seeds which are called almonds or cacao are ground and made into powder, and other small seeds are ground, and this powder is put into certain basins with a point... and then they put water on it and mix it with a spoon. And after having mixed it very well, they change it from one basin to another, so that a foam is raised which they put in a vessel made for the purpose. And when they wish to drink it, they mix it with certain small spoons of gold or silver or wood, and drink it, and drinking it one must open one's mouth.”

Going a little deeper into the history of chocolate and its early health benefits, the website Cadbury.com notes that, “in the 17th century, the Dutch broke Spain's monopoly of cocoa when they captured Curacao. They brought cocoa beans from America to Holland, where cocoa was greatly acclaimed and recommended by doctors as a cure for almost every ailment, and also enabled the cocoa trade to spread.”

Chocolate’s Health Benefits

On Medscape in 2013, Dr. Bret S. Stetka, MD wrote about the 7 Health benefits of Chocolate. In this article, he noted that cocoa is high in flavanols. “These abundant phenolic plant compounds have marked antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties and are thought to be responsible for much of the health benefit ascribed to chocolate consumption.” For a reference point, the darker the chocolate, the more flavanols.

In previous blogs, I've emphasized that a brain injury, especially a concussion, causes the brain to become inflamed. Therefore, I always recommend an anti-inflammatory diet for anyone who has recently suffered a concussion, and dark chocolate is certainly included in this diet because of its beneficial anti-inflammatory properties.

Dr. Steka’s article also states that flavanols can help reduce blood pressure. Having high blood pressure, of course, is very unhealthy, and can even lead to stroke. In the article, Dr, Steka discusses a 2011 study of the Swedish Mammography Cohort, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which found an inverse relationship between cocoa-rich chocolate consumption in women and stroke: Increasing chocolate consumption by 50 g per week reduced cerebral infarction risk by 12%, hemorrhagic stroke risk by 27%, and total stroke risk by 14%. A more recent study looking at a cohort of over 37,000 Swedish men,[10] published in Neurology, reported that individuals who eat at least 1.8 oz of chocolate per week have a 17% lower risk for stroke compared with those who eat less than 0.4 oz per week.

 In other recent research, it is shown that the amount of flavanol, which dark chocolate is rich in, was the key factor in helping seniors to reduce memory loss. Other articles state that flavanol also help in regulating your mood and even depression.

So, the bottom line here is that eating dark chocolate is good for your memory, blood pressure, and your mood. It helps alleviate depression and also acts as an anti-inflammatory, which means that it is good for your brain. And if it is good for your brain...it is good for you.

Also, please remember that if you have had a brain injury, it is essential to cut out as much sugar from your diet as possible. Refined Sugar is terrible for your brain in general, and detrimental to a brain that is healing from an injury. This is why it is vital to look for chocolate that is at least 85% cocoa.

For more information, please see Martha Lindsay’s blog- Ditch the Sugar and Say bye to Brain Fog.

Healthy Holiday Treat – Chocolate!

One of my favorite memories was when I was in Switzerland and went to a chocolate factory. At the factory there was a fountain of chocolate where you could put a cup or piece of biscuit in the fountain to gather the warm chocolate. It was delicious. Another time when I was in Belgium at another chocolate factory, they had a similar fountain, but it was made of dark chocolate. I believe that just thinking of it these events is making my brain better!

Sugar Warning

Please, if you have a concussion, stroke or other brain injury or you don’t want brain fog, you can still enjoy chocolate during the holiday season... Thanksgiving and Christmas...just make sure it is dark chocolate that you’re consuming.  For a Yummy Dark Chocolate flourless brownie, Martha Lindsay brought in this recipe for Fudgy Black Bean Brownies. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. There is a Way!™

 Copyright © 2014 Diane Roberts Stoler, Ed.D.

About the Author

Diane Roberts Stoler, Ed.D

Diane Roberts Stoler, Ed.D., is a neuropsychologist, board-certified health psychologist, board-certified sports psychologist, and trauma therapist with over 35 years experience. 

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