Food is Medicine
The Heavenly Health Benefits of Chocolate
Last week the Vallarta Botanical Gardens hosted a 2-day festival celebrating Chocolate also know in the Nahua language as Xocolatl (The X in Nahua sounds like “sh”) and I was honored to participate. Below, read about some of the lesser-known facts about the health benefits of chocolate and about its traditional use in this region.
Chocolate Reduces Arterial Inflammation
Chocolate is healthy for us because it is very rich in anti-inflammatory compounds called flavanols. These include epicatechin, which is also found in Green tea. These anti-inflammatory compounds are munched upon by intestinal bacteria, which then ferment them and enable them to pass into the blood stream where they quench the fires of arterial inflammation. Chocolate’s notoriety as an aphrodisiac is based in large part on its capacity to enhance the flow of blood (vasodilator) making it also a mild aid in reducing blood pressure.
Chocolate has been shown effective to reduce C-reactive protein (cRP)
cRP wis a blood marker for inflammation and thus reduce risk of heart disease, depression and dementia. Dark chocolate has also been shown to enhance mitochondrial function—our little cellular engines that tend to slow down with age and are implicated in the causes of fibromyalgia and mental illness.
Enhancing Mitochondrial Function with Chocolate
Another health benefit of chocolate is the bitter element of dark chocolate. This signifies its value to liver health as bitter plants support gall bladder health. Craving may be a sign of needing more magnesium as chocolate is a rich source of this muscle relaxing mineral. Chocolate is an effective mood booster in large part because it stimulates endorphins and brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin and because the theobromine and caffeine adds energy. Theobromine (from theo and broma = food of the gods) and caffeine act together as a cough suppressant, which makes dark chocolate a valuable aid for colds and asthma.
In the Bay of Banderas and Cabo Corrientes a traditional beverage to treat a cough and cold is called Cuastecomate and Chocolate consists of the fruit of the cuastecomate, also called the Calabash (Crescentia alata), dark chocolate and Raicilla.
Chocolate Improves Vitamin Deficiencies
Dark chocolate also enhances insulin sensitivity making it a potential prevention for diabetes type 2. (But only when eaten without sugar). The healthy saturated fats in chocolate enable absorption of fat soluble vitamins, A, D, E and K. All these qualities lead overall enhanced mood and brain health.
Maximizing the Benefits of Chocolate
• Emphasize the use of dark chocolate bars or organic cocoa
• Less processing of dark chocolate bars means more flavanols
• Eat chocolate without sugar or artificial sweetener
• Eat between 8-20 grams a day for health benefits.
• Combine chocolate with coconut and coconut oil, green tea, berries
• Add pure organic cocoa to smoothies for a natural energy boost
Healthy Almond Joys
Enjoy this Health Almond Joy recipe that children and adults love to make.
Recipe by Rudolph Rÿser from Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health: The Complete Guide to the Food-Mood Connection, Leslie Korn, Copyright© 2016 (W.W. Norton & Company)
This recipe is medicine. It is a delicious and healthy alternative to commercial candy like Almond Joys or Mounds bars. Making these treats can be a group activity and is especially fun to do with children and adolescents who can learn about healthy “treats” and the effects of sugar on focus and well being. The anti-inflammatory properties of both the coconut and dark chocolate and almonds make this treat a healthy and effective mood booster.
Healthy Almond Joy
Makes about 30 squares
2 sheets parchment paper
½ cup blue agave, honey, or maple syrup / or 25 drops of stevia 2 tablespoons butter
2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut, lightly packed
30-35 roasted and unsalted almonds
17 ounces organic dark chocolate bar (no sugar added), chopped or broken into small pieces.
- In a saucepan, bring the agave to a low boil over medium heat. Add the butter and melt it, stirring occasionally. Once fully integrated, remove from heat and let sit for 2-3 minutes. Add the coconut slowly, stirring until it is fully coated.
- Put a sheet of the parchment paper on a clean cutting board. Pour the agave-coconut mixture onto the parchment, spreading it with a spatula or the flat side of a knife.
- Spread the mixture to about ½ inch thickness. Form into a rectangle, roughly 9 by 4 inches, and cover with another piece of parchment. Using a rolling pin or bottle, lightly roll the mixture outwards until it is about ¼ inch thick.
- Allow the mixture to cool slightly, remove the top parchment, then sharp cut it into strips about 1- inch wide. Working crosswise cut the strips again into 2-inch rectangles.
- Slide the coconut squares, still on their parchment, onto a half-sheet pan, allowing them to set while preparing the dark chocolate bar. **TIP: Coat the knife, if using, with butter to keep the mixture from sticking.
- Place the chopped dark chocolate into a heat-proof bowl. Set the bowl over a pan of simmering water. Don’t allow the bowl to touch the water.
- Melt the dark chocolate, stirring constantly with a rubber spatula, until it is smooth. Remove the melted dark chocolate from the heat.
- Place the second piece of parchment paper on the cutting board.
- Working quickly while the dark chocolate is still warm, spread a thin layer of the dark chocolate into a rectangle that is more or less, the size of the sheet of coconut squares, using only half of the melted dark chocolate.
- Remove coconut squares from refrigerator and immediately turn them out onto the sheet of melted dark chocolate.
- Press down firmly using your hands. Remove the parchment from the coconut. Using a knife, separate the coconut squares following the cuts made earlier.
- Top each coconut square with a roasted almond.
- Using a spoon, ladle the rest of the melted dark chocolate across the coconut squares, creating an even layer.
- Refrigerate the pan for 20-30 minutes to allow the dark chocolate to harden.
- Re-cut the squares and refrigerate until ready to serve.