Well-Being//

The Surprising Psychological Benefits of Chocolate

Science suggests there's a link between well-being and eating the foods that bring you joy.

LightFieldStudios/ Getty Images
LightFieldStudios/ Getty Images

Chocolate and love. The two are so intertwined, not only are they synonymous with Valentine’s Day, the mystique of chocolate and love is the focus of movies such as Chocolat, a charming fable about the love-laced magic of chocolate. And, of course, there’s Forrest Gump, with its famous line, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re “gonna get.”

But as science continues to focus its microscope on chocolate, we do know what we’re “gonna get” when we consume choice dark chocolate with high cocoa content: feel-good feelings, enhanced heart health, and increased odds of staying slim. How amazing! Just as we think chocolate, itself, is perfection (and it is!), we’re learning more and more about the healing wonders it works on your emotions, health, and waistline. 

A Natural High

Christened “food of the gods” with its botanical name (Theobroma cacao), chocolate has flourished over the centuries as a reputed aphrodisiac. Anyone who has experienced the emotional ambrosia from choice chocolate knows it lives up to its reputation. Here’s why.

When you consume the sweet-and-creamy concoction of cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, natural substances (hormones) such as blues-busting endorphins that perform as painkillers and produce pleasurable feelings, plus soothing serotonin—are released. And it gets better: The phenylethylamine (PEA) that circulates when you eat chocolate is the same PEA that produces its euphoric side effects when you fall in love. In this way, the chocolate-love link may be literal. 

Heart-Healthy Help

Chocolate offers even more than feel-good feelings and possible aphrodisiac powers. The healing ingredient? High-powered antioxidants, a substance that protects your cells from damage. For instance, high levels of dark chocolate’s flavonoids, which mop up artery-clogging chemicals in the body, may help reduce heart disease by protecting blood vessels from damaging substances called free radicals. Polyphenols in chocolate lower risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol, blood sugar, and blood pressure. And the antioxidant epicatechin, abundant in cocoa, may improve blood flow, and in turn, heart-health. 

Eat Chocolate, Weigh Less

Can the benefits of chocolate get even better? It seems so: Chocolate may help you stay slim. In a study published in Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers showed that it’s possible to eat chocolate and weigh less if you consume small amounts of dark chocolate at least five times each week. The researchers also found that chocolate eaters weighed about five to seven pounds less than those who didn’t eat much chocolate, even though they consumed more total calories than less frequent chocolate eaters. The secret to chocolate’s metabolic mystery? The potent antioxidant epicatechin that improves heart-health, also revs up your metabolism. (Sorry, but consuming more chocolate isn’t better `cause if you overeat chocolate, the calorie-count climbs too high for you to reap the rewards.) 

Chocolate Bites

The alluring creamy combination of cocoa and sugar. The blues-busting benefits of endorphins. The release of relaxing serotonin. The euphoric “fall in love” side effect of PEA. A healthier heart. And now, perhaps a boost in metabolism and increased odds of staying slimmer. There are many reasons so many of us love (crave?) the delicious, feel-good elixir that is chocolate. Reaping the rewards depends on eating the right kind and the right amount. Here, two tips to optimize your success:

Right kind. If you want weight-loss results, it’s all about cocoa content. Choose dark chocolate, dark chocolate, dark chocolate, with a cocoa content that’s 70% or higher.

Right amount. Surprisingly, it only takes a small amount of dark chocolate to access its feel-good feelings and stay-slim effects. To get the mind-body benefits, consume about an ounce of dark chocolate, with a high cocoa content, each day. What does one ounce look like in real life? It’s about the size of a credit card. Instead of measuring, try this simple guideline: If the piece of chocolate is thick—as in the photo at the start of this section—have one piece; if it’s thinner and smaller, enjoy two or three pieces.

Two more tips: Choose dark chocolate with cocoa listed as the first ingredient on the label. And keep in mind that organic chocolate, which is chemical-free, is an optimal choice for your chocolate fix.

Reaping the Rewards

“Eat fresh, whole foods in their natural state as often as possible” is the core, what-to-eat guideline in our Whole Person Integrative Eating program. So, too, with chocolate: The key to reaping the rewards of chocolate is to go as unadulterated as possible. In other words, if you decide to include choice chocolate in your diet each day, keep it simple. 

Choose the right kind (high cocoa content), and the right amount (an ounce), and you’ll be adding another piece to the optimal-eating puzzle, which not only may up your odds of feel-good feelings and a healthy heart, but also of attaining and maintaining weight loss.

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