The Benefits of Dark Chocolate - Ask a Nutritionist

December 7, 2023

Dark chocolate: it tastes good and it's good for insulin resistance. But what about the sugar in the chocolate? Are there sweetener alternatives that are healthier? Do the benefits of the chocolate outweigh the sugars?

In this week's episode of Ask a Nutritionist, Leah dives deep into the mysteries of dark chocolate and how beneficial this favorite treat truly can be.

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LEAH: Hello and welcome to Dishing Up Nutrition's “Ask a Nutritionist” podcast brought to you by Nutritional Weight and Wellness. My name is Leah Kleinschrodt. I'm a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, and we are thrilled to be celebrating 20 years on air discussing the connection between what you eat, and how you feel, while also sharing practical, real life solutions for healthier living through balanced nutrition. We just wanted to take a moment and thank you, the listeners, for your support and your listenership over the years. Now, let's get started.

On today's show, I will be answering a group of related questions that we received from one of our Dishing Up Nutrition listeners. Now this listener says, “Hello, I have read articles about how dark chocolate is good for insulin resistance, but what about the sugar that is in a dark chocolate bar? Do the benefits of the chocolate outweigh the harm caused by the sugar? And as someone who has reversed prediabetes, should I consume dark chocolate for the benefits or avoid it because of the sugar? Should I look for chocolate sweetened with stevia, or just have hot cocoa with stevia?”

So again, a group of questions, all interrelated, and so I'm going to try to make sure I hit on each one of these. And I just wanted to thank that listener also for sending in these questions. I've personally always been a chocolate lover, so I'm excited to have the opportunity to just chat about one of my favorite topics.

Dark chocolate has shown to have some mild anti-diabetic effects

To keep it short and sweet, the short answer is yes, dark chocolate has been shown to have at least some mild anti diabetic effects. So again, it can help to reduce some insulin resistance. And when we're talking about dark chocolate, we are talking about the cocoa content 70%, 80%, 90%, so we're really in that dark chocolate range.

Yes, you will be getting some sugar along for the ride, but in looking at the research on chocolate and its connections to various chronic illnesses, diseases, or just general health, the research does account even for this sugar content. And of course, the darker you go, the less sugar you will have in that chocolate.

Research on chocolate: effects on various areas of health

And I wanted to just point out actually one specific study. It was a meta-analysis. And what that means is they just took a lot of different individual studies and brought them all together under this one main study. So they looked at a bunch of different studies and tried to ask the question, you know, do they point in any one certain direction? Is chocolate beneficial? Is it helpful? Is it harmful? What's the story here? So this particular meta-analysis was published in the journal, Nutrients, in 2017. So it was a few years ago, but what they were specifically looking at was chocolate consumption and its effect on heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

And what this meta-analysis found is that the max benefits for dark chocolate, if you have about an ounce of dark chocolate at least twice a week and up to six times a week, that is going to show the most benefits or have the most therapeutic beneficial effect for people. It doesn't necessarily mean if you have a little bit more that it's truly harmful. It just means that according to this particular study, we didn't get any additional benefits to eating dark chocolate if we went above six times per week.

So if you think about it, that means eating an ounce of dark chocolate per day, or maybe you skip a day or two here and there, and you could potentially see improvements in your lab work, including your blood sugar. This study also looked at triglyceride levels and a couple other markers as well. Now will it take you from a hemoglobin A1C of 10 down to the normal range of 5.4? No, that's not what these studies are saying. But it is saying that it can have a beneficial effect on that insulin resistance and on some of those blood sugar numbers.

How does dark chocolate affect your blood sugar individually?

Now this is again what the research studies say. It doesn't necessarily tell us everything that goes on on the individual level. So how individual people respond to chocolate or to XYZ food or carb or whatever. So if you specifically were really curious to see how one ounce of dark chocolate affects your blood sugar, you could test your blood sugar with a glucometer. Those are easy enough to get these days. You can order them on Amazon or you could go to your local drug store, pick one up for relatively cheap and get a few blood sugar strips.

And I would test your blood sugar, you know, maybe 30 to 60 minutes or so after you eat that chocolate and see what your blood sugar numbers are doing. Are they staying relatively steady? Do you stay maybe right around that 100 milligrams per deciliter mark, maybe a little bit more, maybe a little bit less, somewhere in that range.

Another idea, because I, at least in my experience, personal and with clients, is that most of us tend to, if we're going to eat chocolate, it might be more of like that after dinner type of treat or a snack, whether it's right after dinner or maybe a few hours later, but having that little something sweet to cap off the night.

What you could do is also test your blood sugar right away in the morning. Do a fasting blood sugar number and compare what do your blood sugars do, in the morning after you had chocolate the night before, and what does it do when you do not have chocolate the night before? And that will give you that individual answer of how does chocolate actually affect my blood sugar.

Because this person who asked this question said, I managed to dig myself out of prediabetes, so we probably know this person has a little bit more sensitive blood sugars or has a little bit more predisposition to that insulin resistance. So it is always good to know on an individual level how you do specifically. We can look at research studies, but sometimes just doing a little bit of testing will give you some really great data to work with.

Stevia-sweetened vs. sugar-sweetened chocolate

Now, one of the questions, too, was if I'm really concerned about the chocolate and the sugar, should I opt for, chocolate sweetened with Stevia? And I would say you certainly could. Lily's dark chocolate is one brand that I know that I've seen popularly that's out there, they sweeten their dark chocolate with stevia. So you will still get that sweet taste in the chocolate. You just don't get the added sugar piece. And for some people that is fine.

For other people, even having that little bit of something sweet might create some cravings. So again, this is a place where you just have to know your tendencies. And, for what it's worth in my two cents, I personally, I've tried Lily's. I don't care for it necessarily, even though typically I don't mind stevia. I guess I just kind of like the real thing, and so I'll go as dark chocolate as I can and really enjoy like that small portion.

Check out some recipes with chocolate on our website!

And I will point out that we've got a few recipes on our website that could fit the chocolate bill and would also be blood sugar friendly. We've got a protein hot chocolate recipe, no sugar chocolate milk recipe. We've got a chocolate peppermint hot cocoa recipe, so that would be a pretty, that would be a nice seasonal type of drink. These are just to name a few of the recipes that we have on the site. So the chocolate in these recipes are either coming from cocoa powder, our Chocolate Key Greens, which is sweetened with monk fruit, or the chocolate flavor that is coming with the protein powder in that recipe that you're using.

Can you stop at 1 ounce of dark chocolate?

And then, let's say the last thought that I have on this topic is , if I had this person sitting in front of me, if I was sitting down having a face to face conversation with them, the question that I would ping back to them with some of these questions is, okay, say we have, we have some research that says an ounce of dark chocolate multiple times a week is, it can be health promoting, actually.

But if you have an ounce of dark chocolate, is it easy for you to stop at that one ounce? Or is your underlying biochemistry or your tendency, is it to have a little and then to want more and more and more? Or does it create cravings for other things? So if you are that someone where you can have a little and move on, that's great. I'd say then go for it, you have a great option with that dark chocolate.

But if not, if you do find that a little opens the door too much to other things or it is hard to stop after just a little, then I would encourage you to tread lightly.

Be mindful of the caffeine content in chocolate

And one last thought, is I know, again, I mentioned before a lot of people will enjoy their dark chocolate in the evening, after dinner, or at the end of dinner, or a few hours later, one thing that some people are sensitive to. This is myself included. We do need to be careful about the caffeine content in dark chocolate. So especially if that's consumed in the evening, just be aware of that and does that play a role in how you're able to relax at night. And does it affect your sleep that night?

So, hopefully this was helpful just to break down some of these questions. My guess is there are a lot of other people out there that are wondering about is chocolate, and especially dark chocolate, really beneficial? So, thank you so much for listening to Dishing Up Nutrition's “Ask a Nutritionist”. And if you have a nutrition question you would like us to answer, we invite you to join our Dishing Up Nutrition Facebook community by searching Dishing Up Nutrition on Facebook.

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