I am addicted to three things: coffee, water and chocolate.
Quite literally, chocolate gets me through the day. It makes studying bearable, relieves stress and makes me happy. Unprocessed, darker chocolates deserve a place in the diets our society considers healthy.
Adding chocolate to your lifestyle is neither about appealing to the masses nor about making an excuse to constantly eat chocolate. Instead, doing so invites a long-overdue reckoning with the concepts of a balanced diet and eating healthy. At the same time, it is necessary to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy chocolates, the latter of which can cause more health problems.
A complete understanding of healthy eating is limited due to the topic’s inherent subjectivity, but many rely on nutritional guides like the Healthy Eating Plate for educated recommendations. Unlike the U.S. government’s MyPlate, the Healthy Eating Plate accurately reflects current nutritional research and is beholden to neither agricultural policy nor the food industry. It promotes a quality diet and promises to mitigate cardiovascular disease, other chronic conditions and obesity. Teachers have praised healthy eating guides like it in every health class I have taken since elementary school, but their recommendations have never quenched my cravings for something sweet following a savory meal. I always felt guilty for indulging in “unhealthy” foods.
American culture has become obsessed with weight, body size and fad diets. We equate physical appearance with worth. We pervert the meaning of healthiness through social media and television, glorifying painfully thin bodies that are often diametrically opposed to real health. Healthy eating is about balance. But despite a wealth of authoritative information on the subject, people simply do not. A 2017 study showed that despite McDonald’s decision to add apple slices to its menu, only 11% of customers ordered this healthier alternative.
Because most people do not opt for healthier food options, overindulging is another factor that can increase body fat. Foods labeled as indulgent are directly correlated with increased levels of satiety, no matter how many calories they contain. Conventionally healthy foods do not contribute to our sense of fullness, leading us to overeat. To combat this, some scientists are investigating how glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1), a hormone that stimulates insulin, can maximize nutrients absorbed in the body, improve satiety and ultimately reduce body fat. GLP-1 therapy was originally meant to tackle the obesity epidemic, but chocolate could very well achieve a similar effect. Just a little bit of chocolate can elicit satiation just like the GLP-1 hormone. While no research backs this up yet, the satisfaction of eating chocolate after a meal could potentially leave you satisfied enough to prevent overeating.
Chocolate deserves a better reputation and should not be measured by its caloric density, which often overshadows its many health benefits. For example, the cocoa plant is rich in compounds called flavanols, which are powerful antioxidants that improve cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure and improving blood flow. The benefits aren’t negligible. Improving health with a comfort food could be revolutionary, but chocolate’s notoriety as an indulgence blinds many of us to the possibility.
Picking the right chocolate is equally important. Chocolate that is not dark regularly includes saturated fats, added sugars and higher levels of sodium; this extra processing not only decreases the amount of flavanols but is also linked to chronic diseases that we want to avoid. But by choosing the right chocolate and consuming it in moderation, the benefits significantly outweigh the negatives. Moderate amounts of chocolate can reduce risk for diabetes and protect nerves from inflammation. A 2008 study showed that chocolate consumed in moderation can help reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or so-called bad cholesterol. When looking for chocolate, whole chocolate with no additives like Hu Kitchen’s chocolate is preferable to more common brands such as Lindt and Toblerone.
Mental health is just as important as physical health, and research suggests that dark chocolate can improve it. Chocolate containing at least 70% cacao can increase neuroplasticity, which improves memory, cognition and mood. The Centre for Human Psychopharmacology at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia found that tryptophan in chocolate helps produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that causes us to feel happy and satisfied. Chocolate also stimulates brain activity. Theobromine, an alkaloid in the cacao plant, is a stimulant similar to coffee: it relaxes and relieves the body of stress. Just one or two squares can make you happy, improve your mood and soothe anxiety.
For chocolate lovers like me, staying away from this delectable god-send completely is impossible. Many of us as college students strive to eat healthy, but our restrictive definition of healthy food leads to lapses in self-control. The fear of unhealthy foods causes people to overcompensate for the body and neglect the mind. In moderation, chocolate is a healthy comfort food that benefits mental health and belongs on your personal healthy eating plate.
Sophia Ling (24C) is from Carmel, Indiana.