Chocolate: A heart-healthy confection?
By Catherine Ann Rauch
Melting in the mouth with sweetness, seductively fragrant, smooth and luscious on the tongue, chocolate is, for many, the quintessential romantic gift. And while the reasons for this ancient confection's allure are the subject of many a scientific debate, one solid fact is emerging: Chocolate could be good for the heart in ways other than just by improving romance.
New and yet-to-be-published studies are showing that antioxidants in chocolate -- dark chocolate and cocoa powder -- may increase "good" (HDL) cholesterol levels by as much as 10 percent, says Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., a registered dietitian at Pennsylvania State University.
In the studies, subjects ate 22 grams of cocoa powder and 16 grams of dark chocolate every day (one Hershey bar contains 45 grams of cocoa powder). The result: Their "bad" (LDL) cholesterol was less susceptible to oxidation, a process that normally leads to artery-clogging plaques. While many people take vitamins and other antioxidants to help prevent plaque development, the study shows that cocoa could do the trick.
Chocolate may be endowed with more than just antioxidants. Previous research by Kris-Etherton published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1997 showed that one of the fats in chocolate, called stearic acid, can boost HDL levels. Also, when people ate milk chocolate regularly, their levels of LDL didn't increase as might have been expected from fat consumption.
"The message here is that chocolate's not bad, and it may have some beneficial effects," says Kris-Etherton, who will present her latest research at a San Diego, California, conference of experimental biologists in April. "People should not feel guilty about eating it."
To a certain extent, that is. Moderation is key, she points out: "You have to incorporate it into a balanced and healthy diet."
Women's craving: Cultural or chemical?
That advice may be hard for women to heed -- especially when premenstrual craving surfaces once a month. Women's bodies scream for chocolate.
But the health-conscious side shifts to high alert, warning of all the fat -- heart-healthy or not -- and sugar.
So what's a woman to do? It may depend on why she has the craving -- whether she'd be answering to the body's physiological or psychological call for chocolate.
By studying women in Spain and in the United States, Debra Zellner, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, concluded that women in the U.S. have the craving because they've turned chocolate into a nutritional taboo -- delicious, but loaded with calories and fat. Convinced it's a wicked indulgence, she theorizes, these women tell themselves they shouldn't have it, then wind up falling off the wagon, particularly before they menstruate, when they might be feeling a little low.
"You feel better because you've just treated yourself to something, but there's no physiological reason," says Zellner, who found that Spanish women simply didn't crave chocolate as much as women in the United States.
Zellner may face opposition when she presents her findings this summer at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behaviors in Dublin, Ireland. Numerous studies and papers have been published on the attraction to chocolate, and some scientists are convinced a physiological connection exists. More than 400 chemicals have been identified in chocolate, some of which could affect mood. Zellner says she thinks any pharmacologically active chemicals in chocolate occur in amounts too small to have an impact, but others aren't so sure.
Debra Waterhouse, a registered dietitian and the author of the 1999 book "Why Women Need Chocolate," thinks both culture and chemicals come into play. Chemicals in chocolate affect levels of the body's mood-affecting chemicals, including serotonin, endorphins and phenylethylamine, which the body releases in response to romance, Waterhouse says.
A comprehensive review of chocolate research, published in the October 1999 Journal of the American Dietetic Association, came to the same conclusion. Two nutritionists at the University of Arizona in Tucson examined almost 75 research papers published over the past two decades on the craving for chocolate -- and decided emotions, social values, sensory qualities, chemicals and the hormonal cycles of women all play a role. "It's the whole package," says co-author and nutrition professor Doug Taren, Ph.D.
Of course, the swirl of clinical opinions matters little when it comes to pleasing your sweetheart. "The bottom line is that chocolate does make women feel good," Waterhouse says. "If the message -- loud and clear -- is chocolate, trust your body, let go of the guilt."
Copyright 2000 WebMD/Healtheon. All rights reserved.
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American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
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Pennsylvania State University
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