A conversation that I was involved in the other day centered on whether it was the right thing to do to give your wife/girlfriend chocolates for Valentine's Day. On the one hand, chocolate has calories and fat and so that isn't such a good thing if you are trying to watch your weight. But on the other hand, we've heard from the research that some kinds of chocolate can actually be good for your heart. And so, the question is, what are the facts about chocolate?
It is hard to believe, but in fact, research does show that chocolate can have an antioxidant effect, a platelet effect and a vascular effect (similar to the effect of aspirin). Unfortunately, these effects need to be considered in the whole scope of things. Chocolate is usually associated with high fat and high sugar foods, and so the caloric and weight control issues are also factors.
One of the ingredients in chocolate that gives it these "healthful" benefits are called flavanols. However, these flavanols can be destroyed in processing, so some chocolate products may contain more flavanols than another chocolate product. Darker chocolate products usually have more of these flavanols. That's why we hear about dark chocolate being better for us than milk chocolate.
Calorie-wise, however, there isn't any difference between milk chocolate and dark chocolate. And there definitely are calories in chocolate! When you compare chocolate candy to candy made with pure sugar (like gumdrops or jelly beans) you will see that there are more calories in the chocolate type.
It's also really easy for most people to overdo it when they eat chocolate. Some people can satisfy their taste for chocolate by eating lower calorie chocolate choices - such as sugar-free chocolate pudding or sugar-free hot cocoa. But if you like the taste of chocolate candy, you need to savor the flavor and practice "mindful eating." In other words, we need to be conscious of the number of pieces from the Valentine's box that we eat. Instead of just chewing them up and swallowing quickly, try letting the chocolate slowly melt on your tongue, so that your taste buds can be satisfied. Mindful eating also means moderation. Even though it has the flavanols and provides this anti-oxidant effect, it doesn't mean that unlimited amounts are good for you!
Moderation in what and how much we eat and how active we are, are still the most important variables in controlling your weight. "Empty" calories or "discretionary" calories should be those additional calories in foods that we eat AFTER we have met the recommendations for all the healthy foods from each of the food groups each day. Most of us don't have that many discretionary calories to eat each day without taking in more calories than we need.
So this holiday, may your consumption of chocolates be balanced by your activity plan and kept in moderation. And then there's always flowers
(Cheryl Rude is a registered dietitian at Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center.)