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I am Louise O'Driscoll, founder of Natural Balance. I am a Certified Eating Psychology Coach, helping people find their way to a healthy and happy relationship with food and body.

Change One Thing - Enjoy Chocolate

By louiseodriscoll, Dec 1 2014 11:01AM

This week's Change One Thing is to try and eat chocolate - yes you read that right, a health coach encouraging chocolate consumption! Of course you've probably already guessed that I mean dark chocolate (more than 70% cocoa) rather than milk or white, but if it's a switch you haven't made yet then it's definitely one worth working on, I promise it doesn't take long to change your preference! If you aren't a fan yet, start with dark chocolate with lower concentrations of cocoa and work your way up. Then take the time to enjoy a few squares a day.

Dark chocolate is frequently included in lists of 'superfoods', that provide multiple health benefits in one little package. It earns this status because of the cacao it contains, which is full of beneficial flavonoids, theobromine, antioxidants, fibre, magnesium and phenylethlamine. Lots of complicated sounding chemicals and nutrients that add up to an impressive list of benefits.

The antioxidants in dark chocolate can be even better than fruit for fighting free-radicals that age your skin and they can also fight disease and cut your risk of heart disease by over a third by improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure. It reduces the likelihood of blood clots or strokes and arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). In addition, the flavonoids it contains help reduce insulin resistance by helping cells function normally and the low GI score means that it doesn't cause big spikes and dips in blood sugar in the same way as sweeter chocolate. Dark chocolate also contains iron, which helps protect against anaemia. The oldest known woman, who lived to the age of 122 attributed her amazing health and longevity to regularly eating chocolate!

Dark chocolate can provide a great source of energy before a workout in the same way that coffee can but without the side effects that some people get when they drink coffee. The caffeine and theobromine (often found in energy drinks) that dark chocolate contains have this effect along with magnesium and chromium that help with energy production. It may also help with muscle ageing due to the plant compound epicatechin which replicates the effect of exercise on muscles. Not to suggest you should eat chocolate instead of exercising, but you can do both and gain extra benefits.

There are mental health benefits to eating dark chocolate too; the flavonoids it contains can boost your brain power, increasing blood flow to the brain and helping with concentration and focus. It has also been shown in objective tests to reduce stress and chronic fatigue so can also be useful for alleviating depression. Magnesium aids relaxation and anandamide is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, along with phenylethylamine that raises your endorphin levels - so if you think chocolate makes you feel better when you are sad or low, then you are right and this is why!

It appears that dark chocolate can make you slim - the Swiss eat over 26lbs of chocolate, per person, per year yet have an obesity rate of less than 8% - how crazy does that seem, given our perception of chocolate as 'bad' for our waistlines? But it is consistent with findings in a US study that showed that people who consumed dark chocolate regularly had a lower BMI than those who didn't, despite them doing the same amount of exercise and even when they ate more calories. It could be that the fibre, protein and fat in good quality dark chocolate can provide a powerful sense of satiety, reducing the urge to overeat or cravings for poor quality snack foods. There is also some evidence to suggest that cacao can boost your metabolism in a similar way to green tea. Due to the sugar and fat content in chocolate that doesn't feature in green tea, obviously there's going to be a fine line in terms of consumption/benefit so don't run away too much with the idea that more is better, but it is another reason not to feel guilty about indulging in your favourite bar! From an Eating Psychology perspective, I think the ideas of quality and pleasure and not viewing food as 'good or bad' all feature here. The Swiss are renowned for producing the best chocolate in the world, it is valued as a premium product that is often artisan-made. So already it is high quality but the respect it is accorded means that when it is consumed, people take the time and attention to enjoy it and as a result they feel happy, nourished, relaxed and satisfied - all meaning that metabolism is optimised and there is no sense of guilt or regret and all of the nutritional benefit the food has to offer is maximised. Contrast this with the typical British approach of demolishing a bar of Dairy Milk with a mid-morning cup of tea whilst trying to plough through work - we don't relax, we don't really taste or enjoy as much as we could and then we often spend the rest of the day wishing we could have been 'good' and not had it or vowing that tomorrow will be different and we will abstain- what a waste of an opportunity for real pleasure and nourishment!

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