Have Some Dark Chocolate

Dark Chocolate
Dark Chocolate

Rejoice chocolate lovers.  This decadent treat is actually good for your heart and cardiovascular system.  Chocolate comes from the cacao bean, and its cultivation can be traced back thousands of years.  The indigenous Kuna Indian  population of the San Blas Islands of Panama never get high blood pressure, and they enjoy five cups of cocoa every day.  However when they relocate to mainland Panama and change their diet habits, their blood pressure shoots up.  The difference between the indigenous Kuna and their urban counterparts certainly is not genetics, but rather their eating habits.  Modern science is also revealing the same thing.  In fact in multiple scientific studies, dark chocolate has been shown to reduce blood pressure in people with elevated blood pressure.

Where Chocolate Comes From

The cacao tree (Theobroma Cacao) is a small tropical tree that produces cacao pods.  The pods are cracked open to release the seeds (cacao beans) which are then fermented, dried, cleaned, and roasted.  Then the bean’s outer layer is removed leaving the meat of the beans (nibs).  The cacao nibs are then ground into a dark brown paste called cacao paste.  Cacao butter, which is mostly fat, is then removed from the cacao paste at low temperature, and the rest of the fruit (cacao solids) is then ground into cacao powder.  Cacao solids are high in a polyphenol antioxidant called flavonoids which have been shown to lower blood pressure.  Your best bet is ingesting mostly the cacao solids, which are low in calories and virtually fat-free.

Cocoa powder is produced similarly to cacao powder, except it is processed at higher temperatures.  It still retains a large amount of antioxidants and is still excellent for your blood pressure, especially natural unsweetened cocoa powder.  Cocoa powder is also generally less expensive than cacao powder.

Chocolate

Chocolate is a confection made of cacao solids, cacao butter, sugar, and sometimes milk, formed into a solid food product.  Because flavonoids are bitter, some chocolate manufacturers remove many of them and add sugar and milk to enhance flavor.

Dark chocolate has a high content of nonfat cacao solids and flavonoids.  “Dutching” or alkalization of cacao is a process that makes the chocolate taste milder but removes almost all of the flavonoids.  So you want avoid “Dutched” cacao.  Since the level of cacao solids is the main factor in determining the chocolate’s antioxidant power, it is no surprise that cacao powder (ground cacao solids) has the most antioxidants followed by natural unsweetened cocoa powder, baking chocolates, dark chocolates, and semisweet chocolate baking chips.  Milk chocolates and chocolate syrups contain the fewest flavonoids.

The front of the chocolate packages usually list the percentage of cacao solids (or cacao mass).  Have fun sampling different dark chocolate products but beware of imposters such as white chocolate, hot chocolate mixes, chocolate syrups, and milk chocolate bars, all of which are low in flavonoids.

It is best to consume chocolate concoctions made from cacao powder or natural unsweetened cocoa powder.  Make sure the cocoa powder has not been produced using the Dutch processing method.  If a quick inspection of the ingredients list shows the word “alkali,” don’t buy it.

Scientific Studies

Large-scale observational studies: Several studies of thousands of people show an association between eating chocolate and lower blood pressure.  One such large observational study conducted in Germany followed the diet and health habits of about twenty thousand Germans for ten years.  Statistical analysis revealed that people who ate a little chocolate (about one square) a day cut their risk of heart attack or stroke by 39 percent.  A recent meta-analysis combined data from seven large-scale observational studies (involving more than a hundred thousand people) came to a similar conclusion.

Randomized clinical trials: A number of randomized clinical trials prove that eating dark chocolate does indeed cause a reduction in blood pressure.  In one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers tested the effects on blood pressure of eating a small daily amount of dark chocolate, using 44 men and women with prehypertension (not taking medication), over a period of eighteen weeks.  Subjects were divided into two groups.  One group consumed a 30-calorie, 6.3 g piece of high-flavonoid dark chocolate.  The other group consumed a 30-calorie, 5.6 g dose of flavonoid-free white chocolate daily.  At the end of the study, those who ate the dark chocolate had a reduction in blood pressure of 2.9/1.9 mm Hg.  In contrast, those who ate the white chocolate had no change in blood pressure.

Daily Dosage

The top ranked heart clinic in the U.S., the Cleveland Clinic, recommends one ounce (or 28 g) of dark chocolate daily to lower blood pressure.  This amounts to around 115 calories.  Look for dark chocolates that contains at least 70% cacao.  Chocolate lovers should offset the additional calories from chocolate by decreasing calorie elsewhere in their diet.  Even better, you may want to consume cacao powder (or cocoa powder) which has less than 24 calories per tablespoon.

Putting it into Practice

  • You can use cacao powder interchangeably with cocoa powder in baking recipes, smoothies, shakes, oatmeal, cookies, or even stir them into your coffee for a homemade mocha.  If you want more nutrients, you may want to choose cacao powder.
  • Enjoy up to one ounce (28 g) of dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cacao) with a cup of tea.
  • Try a daily cup of steaming decadent hot chocolate using a tablespoon or two of cocoa powder for a heart-healthy and blood pressure-lowering treat.
  • Try baking with unsweetened baking chocolate squares.

 

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My Favorite Reads of the Week

I have read some interesting articles and posts relating to the Mediterranean diet and living healthy.  I though I’d share these in a post and maybe make this a regular feature.

  1. Prolonging the sunshine feeling with the Mediterranean diet – This post describes the features and benefits of the Mediterranean diet along with ideas on how to closely follow it.  I like the ideas on using locally grown produce.
  2. Almonds are your friend – This post discusses the benefits of nuts and seeds.  Focuses on almonds and gives great ideas on how to use them.  This one was quite thorough.
  3. Mediterranean Diet With Olive Oil Linked to Lower Breast Cancer Risk – A short article that summarizes a five-year study on breast cancer risk in women and the Mediterranean diet.  Results showed a 68% reduction in breast cancer risk for women following a Mediterranean diet supplemented with extra virgin olive oil compared to women on a low fat diet.
  4. Hey Baby … gimme some sugar! – This post is all about watching our sugar intake and looking for hidden sugars in prepared and processed foods.  Presents four pointers to reduce sugar intake.  Watching and limiting added sugar is getting a lot of attention from the scientific community.  Very relevant topic and good post.

Fruits and Vegetables: Get Five or More Servings Daily

Local market
Local Produce Market

Fruits and vegetables are important in the Mediterranean diet as they provide vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (plant-based nutrients).  Fruits and vegetables are also low in calories and rich in dietary fiber.  Include a variety of colors (dark green, orange, yellow, red, purple) everyday to get the widest array of nutrients.

There is strong scientific evidence that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.  The largest and longest study to date was conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health where the health and dietary habits of nearly 110,000 men and women were followed for 14 years.  When these findings were combined with other U.S. and Europe studies, they found individuals who consumed more than five servings of fruits and vegetables per day had a 20 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease when compared to individuals who consumed less than three servings per day.

A serving of fruit is 1/2 cup.  A serving of vegetables is 1/2 cup, except raw leafy greens, which is 1 cup.  Based on these studies, it is recommended to consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables.  The higher your calorie intake is, the more fruits and vegetables you can consume.  My calorie intake is roughly 2,100 calories, and I eat ten servings of fruits and vegetables.

To eat more fruit, try fresh fruit for dessert and as a topping on your morning cereal, oatmeal, or porridge.  Try fruits salads and snack on apples or bananas.  Also mix fresh fruit into salads.  To eat more vegetables, try oven-roasted vegetable medleys, stir fries, soups, stews, and salads,  Build meals around beans, an important vegetable.  Also explore the produce aisle at the store and try something new, because variety is as important as quantity.

Written in response to the prompt: Home Turf.

You Can Be Nutty On The Mediterranean Diet

Nuts
Fruit and Nuts

The Mediterranean diet is rich in monounsaturated fats, one type of healthy fat.  Nuts, particularly almonds, are rich in these monounsaturated fats.  Research shows that just one serving (1 ounce) of nuts is associated with lower total and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels.

Almonds contain a lot of dietary fiber, in fact the highest amount of dietary fiber of all the tree nuts.  High fiber diets are associated with lower cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Almonds contain powerful antioxidants that help prevent oxidation, a precursor to plaque buildup in our arteries.  These antioxidants (flavonoids and vitamin E) may be the key to almonds’ ability to protect LDL cholesterol and prevent death from cardiovascular disease.

Almonds relax our arteries so they open up, which lowers our blood pressure.  Almonds also reduce the ability of our blood to clot, therefore reducing the risk of a heart attack.

Almonds are calorie dense, so they should be consumed in moderation.  No more than one to two ounces a day.  An ounce is about a handful.  Click here to read this post for ideas on how to use almonds.

Finally it is best to store almonds in an airtight container in the refrigerator.  This is because they are high in fat, so they are prone to spoilage.

Why I Decided To Go Mediterranean

Colorful Ingredients
Colorful Italian Cuisine Ingredients

About three years ago, I decided to embark on a diet lifestyle to lose weight and keep it off.  I had lost weight in the past but would always regain it.  This time, I wanted a diet that I could stay with for the long run.  I went on a low fat diet for one year.  I lost 22 pounds, but my blood cholesterol shot up from 218 mg/dL to 228 mg/dL.  I was not happy with that.  After doing some research, I came across the Mediterranean diet.  It appealed to me because it included healthy fats, was plant based, and seemed like I would not be sacrificing anything.  It also had the scientific backing as a very heart healthy diet.

On the Mediterranean diet I eat lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and fish.  Moderate amounts of poultry and dairy, and my fat/oil of choice is olive oil (extra virgin).  Very limited amounts of red and processed meats.  I also take 45 minute walks, five days a week.

After being on the Mediterranean diet for 2 years, I have lost 44 pounds, and my blood cholesterol has dropped to 147 mg/dL.  I am truly very happy with this diet lifestyle.  I enjoy the meals, and I am getting the weight loss and cholesterol lowering benefits.  Most importantly, I have had no desire to reverted to my old way of eating.  I am truly on this diet lifestyle for life.  I hope you will join me on this journey to good health.