And just as the list of confectionery sub-categories continues to grow, so too do the myths associated with chocolate’s nutritional report card.
By Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics in the Charles Sturt School of Allied Health, Exercise and Sports Sciences in Wagga Wagga, Dr Marissa Samuelson.
Does chocolate have any nutritional value?
World Chocolate Day is Friday July 7.
Chocolate often gets a bad rap, as it contains fat and is therefore energy dense. In other words, you only need to eat a small amount to absorb a lot of calories.
However, chocolate also contains an array of nutrients like antioxidants which have all sorts of important health promoting effects in the body. Chocolate also contains caffeine, serotonin and a range of vitamins and minerals.
When we are considering the impact of a food on a person’s health, though, we need to remember that foods are more than just a sum of their parts. The nutrients they contain interact with each other within our bodies, and with the other foods we eat. Separating out which nutrients or foods have an impact is very difficult as we don’t usually eat one food alone.
That said, the impact of eating chocolate specifically has been the topic of many studies, including the effect on heart health, diabetes, and mood. However, a recent review found that although there appears to be some associations, the evidence is not strong enough to say whether this association is real or not.
Is dark chocolate really better for you?
The ‘darkness’ of chocolate relates to the cocoa content – the darker the chocolate, the greater the content of cocoa. It is true that dark chocolate also contains the most antioxidants and minerals of all the types of chocolate.
However, for the reasons mentioned earlier, we don’t know if dark chocolate is a better choice than milk or white chocolate, with limited studies answering the age-old question.
Can chocolate cause headaches or migraines?
Migraines can be brought on by exposure to various triggers, including food. A recent systematic review found that chocolate may well be one of these triggers for a small number of people.
The exact reason why this is the case is unknown, but one theory is it could be related to the impact that chocolate has on the blood vessels in the brain.
Is my skin breaking out because I overindulged?
When it comes to chocolate, this might not be the answer you were hoping for – with a recent review finding daily consumption of chocolate is associated with a greater amount of acne, and milk chocolate has the greatest impact.
Diet might play a role in skin conditions like acne. There are several nutrients that are essential for good skin health, including vitamin A, C, E and some of the B vitamins.
In addition, foods that contain omega 3 fatty acids like fatty fish, fruits and vegetables, and foods that are low on the glycaemic index have all been investigated in having a role in improving existing acne.
Is food (including sugar or chocolate) addictive?
It’s a common experience for many people to open, say, a bag of Maltesers and find your hand reaching inside the packet time after time, almost with a mind of its own. For this reason, it can feel like you might be addicted to different foods like chocolate or sugar.
But the consensus about food addiction is that it often occurs in the context of restriction, food insecurity or scarcity. That is, if we are unable to access a particular food, whether self-imposed or otherwise, we often find ourselves wanting that food more.
Whether this has a biological basis as something our brain or body chemistry is telling us, is much less clear and needs more research.
How do we manage a healthy relationship with indulgent foods?
Willpower and mental control are often raised as being central to eating well and other health promoting behaviours like physical activity, as well as maintaining a healthy weight.
However, the idea that willpower is all that is needed to make healthy choices ignores the complexity of influences on our intake that are out of our control. These include our social, cultural, environmental, and political contexts in which we live, work and play.
We know that 70 per cent of our health is determined by factors beyond health care, and factors like poverty and systemic racism have a greater impact on poor health than smoking or obesity.
In recent times, there has been more interest and evidence for a mindful or intuitive approach to eating, which celebrates ‘gentle nutrition’ or ‘body-first nutrition’. These approaches to thinking about eating emphasise listening to our bodies to tell us what to eat, rather than listening to outwardly imposed dietary regimes or diets.
Lucy Aphramor, a dietitian from the UK, uses the acronym GAMES to encourage people to think about how food makes them feel in relation to gut comfort, alertness, mood, energy levels and satisfaction.
This sort of embodied approach to thinking about nutrition helps reduce the influence of external, often negative messages we receive about food, about what we should be eating, and about what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and helps us to focus on what is most meaningful to us as individuals.
This accommodates the infinitely varied ways of eating that are culturally, socially, emotionally, spiritually important as well as what that does for the individual’s body, rather than suggesting we all need to eat in the same way.
‘Healthy’ looks like a lot of different things
There is also good evidence that weight on its own is a limited indicator of someone’s health and we also know that weight loss does not always lead to improved health outcomes, let alone being sustainable in the long-term for many people.
This has led to the development of approaches that are called ‘weight inclusive’, which emphasise other determinants of health and attempt to address the negative impacts of weight stigma and bias.
One of the more commonly known approaches is Health at Every Size (HAES), which has been trademarked by the organisation Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH, 2020). This approach celebrates the diversity of body sizes and shapes and advocates for an end to weight stigma, bias, and discrimination.
In this sense, HAES promotes a body positive perspective, which is often described as encompassing ‘body acceptance, body appreciation, and body love, and adaptive approaches protective of health and wellbeing’.
However, it has also been raised that the body positivity movement as we know it today has moved too far from its roots of fat activism and continues to encourage preoccupation with the thin ideal as well as excluding the voices of people from marginalised groups such as people with larger bodies, and from diverse cultural backgrounds, sexual orientations and gender identities.
This has encouraged a further shift towards a ‘body neutral’ way of thinking. For example, with the Butterfly Foundation explains it as understanding our bodies as ‘simply vessels that carry us through life, and are never the most important thing about us’. There are so many other things we can do to improve our health – being active and eating a healthy diet are just two of them.
On World Chocolate Day …
Regardless of which term you feel most comfortable with, whether it’s weight inclusive, body positive or body neutral, or something else, the clear theme appears to be compassion and acceptance of diversity, regardless of the body you are in.
If we go back to our initial question of ‘should we eat chocolate or not’, it’s important to remember that we eat for lots of reasons, not just whether something is healthy, and that food is also for joy and pleasure for all bodies … something chocolate delivers in spades.