Paging Dr. Frischer - Chocolate

What one food would you like to hear me say is actually good for you?If I were to say broccoli or fish, it would come as no surprise. But what if I say…chocolate? How could something so tasty be good for you? Here are some claims you may have heard: •Eating chocolate releases endorphins in the brain, which act as pain-relievers •Eating chocolate boosts one's appetite, but does not cause weight gain •The sugar in chocolate reduces stress and has a calming effect •Eating chocolate does not cause acne or other skin eruptions •Eating chocolate does not trigger migraine headaches •Eating chocolate reduces the risk of heart disease and cancer Unfortunately, the manufacturers of various chocolate products funded most of the studies! These results have not been proven in independent research; however, the literature does still show some intriguing findings. Let's take a look: Chocolate has bioactive substances including the stimulant theobromine, caffeine, tyramine and phenylethylamines - all of which give us a "lift." Tryptophan, an essential amino acid, lessens anxiety by producing the neurotransmitter serotonin. Endorphins, the body's natural opioids, reduce sensitivity to pain. Anandamide acts like a cannabinoid to promote relaxation. Therefore, in theory, chocolate gives you an energy boost, lowers anxiety, and reduces pain. Unfortunately, from a nutritionist's perspective, the concentration of these good ingredients is at such a low level that their impact is not significant. Furthermore, if cocoa is the good ingredient, we are unfortunately not merely consuming the cocoa bean, but rather eating chocolate that contains sugar and fat as well. So, that nutritionist would be forced to consider chocolate as no less a junk food than ice cream or donuts, and as equally unhealthy and fattening when larger amounts are consumed on a regular basis. Also, note that milk chocolate contains stearic acid, a saturated fat linked to the risk of atherosclerosis and heart disease. Dark chocolate, however, contains only cocoa butter, a fat that naturally occurs in cocoa beans. This fat does not lead to higher cholesterol. The most powerful argument in favor of chocolate being a nutritionally valuable food is the antioxidant value of flavanoids. Antioxidants are an exciting area actively under research. They inhibit oxidative reactions, which are felt to contribute to the formation of various cancers, as well as to atherosclerosis. Cocoa powder, dark chocolate and milk chocolate are all even greater anti-oxidants than are, say, prunes and blueberries. Dark chocolate has more than twice the anti-oxidative ability of milk chocolate. The flavanoids in chocolate are more powerful then a vitamin such as ascorbic acid (vitamin C) in protecting fats from oxidation, and thus clogging our arteries. Flavanoids also act on blood clotting in a similar (but not as long-lasting) way as aspirin, by preventing platelets from forming clots, and thus reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack. However, and I am quite reluctant to say this (my wife and three daughters will kill me), the antioxidant effects of chocolate could easily be matched by eating more plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruits and whole-grains. This should sound familiar to my readers! Regardless of the beneficial attributes of the cocoa bean, we must keep in mind that three Toll House Cookies contain 420 calories: 210 calories from fat and 168 calories from sugar. Only 10% of the total calories come from the cocoa bean. Sorry about that. So, does chocolate contribute in a unique manner to disease prevention? Should you eat chocolate not only for its great taste but also for its health benefits? Stay tuned for more data from current and future studies. Eat in moderation and with nutritional balance. You may choose to follow the advice of researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, who found that those who eat chocolate and "other sweets" up to three times a week live almost a year longer than those who eat too much or those who avoid this type of food altogether. If so, follow this reasonable guideline: eat one ounce of dark chocolate three times per week. I wish you good health! Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and current chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.

********** Published: June 12, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 8