Crack a few nuts and indulge with a little dark chocolate. Christmas food, Part II

Dark chocolate, the varieties containing 85% -90% cocoa solids, is something that I really do enjoy (as regular readers of my blog will already know)!  I take comfort in knowing that this treat is also quite healthy.  Numerous studies have now linked the eating of dark chocolate to a reduced risk of heart disease and cancers, as well as other conditions.  The health benefits appear to come from the antioxidant flavonoids (bioactive plant nutrients) contained within the cocoa and also from the many minerals that cocoa contains such as magnesium.  Dark chocolate also contains fibre and is much lower in sugar than milk chocolate, so most people find that they need far less to satisfy their chocolate cravings.

As a child I remember being told not to spoil my appetite by eating too much chocolate before the Christmas meal so I was pleased to read a report produced by the Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE) at the University of Copenhagen, the paper details some research that the scientists there have carried out on dark chocolate and appetite (1).

The scientists have found that dark chocolate is far more filling than milk chocolate and may lessen our craving for milk chocolate which is sweet, salty and provides very little in the way of nutrition.  Eating a few squares of good quality dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids or over, may well satisfy chocolate cravings and hence prevent further binges and large Christmas weight gains.

To compare the effects of dark and milk chocolate on both appetite and subsequent calorie intake, 16 young, healthy men of normal weight who all liked both dark and milk chocolate took part in an experiment over two separate sessions.  In the first instance dark chocolate was tested and in the second stage, occurring on a different day, milk chocolate was tested.  Prior to the experiment all the participants fasted for 12 hours, so they were hungry.  They were than given 100g of chocolate to consume within 15 minutes.  The calorie content of both the dark and milk chocolate was the same.  After they had eaten the chocolate they were asked to register their appetite every half an hour for the next five hours.  Two and a half hours after having eaten the chocolate the individuals were offered pizza and instructed to eat until they felt comfortably satisfied.  The results were analysed by the scientists and were significant in that after eating dark chocolate the individuals consumed 15% fewer calories from the pizza than when they had eaten milk chocolate.  The participants also recorded that they felt less like eating after consuming the dark chocolate, it made them feel fuller for longer. 

So, in addition to providing us with nutrients and antioxidant, dark chocolate may well help to fill us up and prevent us from over-indulging on unhealthier foods this Christmas.  The appetite controlling effects of the dark chocolate could be down to the nutrients it contains or perhaps the fibre content.  Of course, I am not suggesting gorging on dark chocolate but a few pieces may not be as bad as you once thought!!

Nuts are another Christmas food that some people tend to avoid, thinking they are fatty and full of calories.  As I mentioned last week, nuts are a healthy natural food and we could all do well from eating a regular handful of unsalted, unroasted nuts.

Nuts are packed with nutrients, fibre and healthy fats.  Numerous studies suggest that people who regularly consume nuts (around 30g per day) are slimmer than those who do not.  Nuts also make a great snack as they help dampen the appetite and prevent later overeating.  The fat in nuts is mainly monounsaturated fat, the same as olive oil, which appears to reduce risk of heart disease.  Nuts are also rich in vitamin E, magnesium, potassium and fibre – all of these nutrients are great for heart health.  Brazil nuts are also very high in selenium which is linked to a reduced risk of cancer and walnuts contain omega 3 fatty acids which have many health properties.

Previously I posted a blog dedicated to the health benefits of almonds.  A recent review (2) summarised the available evidence on nuts and body weight and weight loss.  The authors write  “There are claims that energy-dense foods are especially problematic for weight loss and maintenance. Nuts are among the most energy-dense foods consumed, yet the literature consistently documents little impact of their ingestion on body weight”  Nuts seem to satisfy the appetite, they make us feel full and may therefore prevent us overeating on other, less nutritious foods.  This could be due to the fact that, as well as healthy fats, nuts also contain protein and release their energy very slowly into the bloodstream,they have a very low glycaemic index or GI. Evidence also suggests that not all of the fat in nuts is absorbed into the body, much of it being passed out in the stool. 

Cracking a few nuts this Christmas may be a great way to boost health!

(1)University of Copenhagen
(2) Mattes RD et al.  2008.  Impact of peanuts and tree nuts on body weight and healthy weight loss in adults. J Nutr 2008;138:1741S-1745S

Written by Ani Kowal