"It's actually good for your heart and also good for your blood pressure," says Valentine Yanchou Njike, MD, MPH, of the Yale Griffin Prevention Research Center, who has researched cocoa's effect on blood vessel function. Researchers have also found that phytochemicals in cocoa, which is used to make chocolate, may improve blood vessel function, slow blood clotting, improve insulin resistance and have protective effects against cancer. And even though the labels say chocolate contains saturated fat, it's actually the kind of fat (called stearic acid) that has little effect on your cholesterol levels.
But experts warn against celebrating this good news with morning, noon and night chocolate bar binges. The dark delicacy still packs a hefty number of calories per ounce from its fat and sugar content. And as Karen Collins, MS, RD, nutrition advisor to the American Institute for Cancer Research, points out, "We have a wide range of food—vegetable, fruits, whole grains, beans—that provides thousands of phytochemicals, and so our heart and our cancer health does not depend on eating chocolate. If you load up on chocolate for the phytochemicals, then that's going to send your weight up."
The bottom line is that you don't have to beat yourself up for craving chocolate if you enjoy it in moderation. Here are six tips for getting a guilt-free chocolate fix.
1. Keep it pure.
"If you want chocolate, have chocolate, don't have chocolate cake," says Collins. "You'll get the intense chocolate flavor, and you won't be getting the extra calories and unhealthy fats."
2. Choose wisely.
While chocolate may have some health benefits, it should still be eaten as a treat. "It's not a substitute for fruits and vegetables; it's a substitute for other discretionary calories," says Collins. So when snacking, should you pick chocolate over a pear? Probably not. How about chocolate instead of potato chips? Yes, indeed!
3. Eat what you like.
The darker the chocolate, the more phytochemicals (and usually less sugar) it contains. Its flavor is also more intense than milk chocolate. But if you don't like the bitterness of dark chocolate, don't think it's your only option, says Collins. "If what you really like is the milk chocolate, then have what you like, because you're eating this for pleasure."
4. Think bite-size.
It usually just takes a little bit of chocolate to curb a craving. That's why Collins suggests buying chocolate in small portions. "Don't buy the larger size because the unit pricing is better…you won't stop. It's human nature," she says.
5. Get a liquid fix.
Hot cocoa is another way to enjoy chocolate. Make your own low-POINTS® value version with cocoa, skim milk or water and a sugar substitute. Look for "natural" cocoa, not "Dutch-processed." The processing significantly diminishes its phytochemical content, says Collins.
6. Savor it.
If you really love chocolate, slow down and enjoy it instead of gobbling it down on the go. This way, says Collins, "You will get so much enjoyment out of a small amount that you won't need to eat a bagful."