A small piece of very dark chocolate as a regular treat can satisfy your sweet tooth and offer a range of health benefits including: helping to limit (mild) high blood pressure and supporting heart health. A new study now suggests that eating chocolate at least once a week can help to boost cognitive function.
The study published in the journal, Appetite, was focused on the specific impact that dark chocolate might or might not have on cognitive function. A recent study released by Medical News Today suggested that consuming dark chocolate during pregnancy might benefit fetal growth and development, while another study suggested that a daily dark chocolate habit could potentially lower the risk of stroke or a heart attack. Most of these studies looked at “acute impact,” meaning what happens right after consuming a dose of dark chocolate.
This new study wanted to look at the impact of a long term regular chocolate habit. Over 960 subjects, ages 23-98, which were part of the MSLS (Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study), had filled out questionnaires that assessed food intake over several decades.
The researchers gathered data pertinent to questions that asked subjects how often they ate chocolate – never, rarely, once a week, two to four times weekly, fix to six times a week, or once or more daily. Researchers then assessed the subjects using a series of tasks that tested visual-spatial memory and organization, working memory (to process new and existing information), verbal memory (remembering words), and ability to scan and track objects.
Consumption of chocolate at least once a week was linked to better performance on all cognitive tasks, compared to subjects who rarely or never ate chocolate.
The researchers did look at other confounding factors like age, gender, education level, blood pressure-cholesterol-blood sugar levels, alcohol intake and also daily calorie totals—and still, the absolute cognitive findings all remained, with the exception of one variable – working memory. So what is at work here in terms of the impact of chocolate on cognitive function? The researchers suggest that cocoa contains flavanols, and these compounds improve blood flow, which translates to better oxygenation. Chocolate also contains caffeine, which we know can boost overall alertness. It’s important to note that this study looked at ALL chocolate - dark, milk and white chocolate. So the benefit may not just be linked to the “healthier” dark chocolate.
The researchers quickly point out that white and milk chocolate contain large amounts of sugar and unhealthy fats, and even the healthier dark chocolate can still pack a fair amount of refined sugar and calories. So their position is to take the findings of the study and recommend that a small intake of chocolate, once or twice a week, can possibly provide a cognitive boost. Even milk and white chocolate seems to have that potential.
To be clear, most of the research on the benefits of chocolate has used dark chocolate. If you do enjoy chocolate as a part of a healthy, balanced diet, it’s really important to read the nutrition breakdown part of the label and the ingredients section to see:
- Portion size
- Calories per portion
- Amount of refined and added sugars
- Type of fats
- Amount of fat per serving
The big take away message is the small amount needed to gain the cognitive benefit. More is not necessarily better in this equation, folks!! Understanding healthy dietary guidelines will help to keep your waist from growing as you enjoy the benefits of this treat!
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”