If you were to ask me to vote for the one food I couldn’t live without, chocolate would win by a landslide. I can’t imagine what it would be like to never taste its creamy, bittersweet goodness again.
But my love for chocolate has long been at war with my desire to stay healthy. Up until the past several years or so, I believed chocolate had no nutritional value, so I limited it to an occasional indulgence.
You can imagine my delight as researchers began unveiling the numerous health benefits of chocolate. I’ve been eating my favorite treat more often now that I know it can help protect my heart, curb anxiety, balance blood sugar, ease leg pain and boost energy.
Fortunately for me, I almost always eat dark chocolate, which is the form of chocolate that provides most of these health benefits. But what about people like my husband — and the other 49 percent of Americans who prefer milk chocolate?
Most studies indicate that milk chocolate doesn’t have the same health-boosting power because it has far fewer of the antioxidants found in its dark sibling. And health experts often warn people away from milk chocolate — especially if they’re looking to lose weight — because it has a lot more sugar and fat than dark chocolate.
However, researchers have discovered that eating milk chocolate might not be as dangerous for weight gain as previously thought — depending on when it’s eaten…
Milk chocolate: morning vs. evening
A recent study of postmenopausal women found that when they ate a concentrated amount of milk chocolate during a specific period of time in the morning, it helped them burn fat and decrease blood sugar levels.
Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the University of Murcia in Spain studied women who for two weeks consumed either 100 grams of milk chocolate at two different times of day: either in the morning, within one hour after waking, or at night within an hour of their bedtime. They then compared weight gain and other measures to those who did not eat any chocolate.
Results showed that despite the added calories from the chocolate and regardless of what time the women ate the chocolate, it did not lead to weight gain.
In fact, women who ate chocolate within that hour after getting out of bed in the morning…
- didn’t eat as much during the day;
- burned more fat than the other two groups of women in the study;
- showed a reduction in waist size compared with the other women!
The women who ate chocolate in the evening also ate fewer calories during the day, although they did consume slightly more than the morning chocolate group. They also burned more carbohydrates and showed increased physical activity compared to the other two groups in the study.
Chocolate consumption didn’t really affect sleep in either group, though eating chocolate in the evening did provide a time cue for more regular timing of sleep episodes compared with no chocolate consumption.
There was a big difference in blood glucose between the two chocolate-consuming groups. Women who ate chocolate in the morning had a 4.4 percent decline in fasting blood glucose levels, compared with a 4.9 percent increase in the evening chocolate group.
Eating chocolate was also associated with an increase in beneficial bacteria in the gut, with the types of bacteria depending on what time the chocolate was consumed.
“Our findings highlight that not only ‘what’ but also ‘when’ we eat can impact physiological mechanisms involved in the regulation of body weight,” says study co-author Dr. Frank Scheer, a neuroscientist at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Departments of Medicine and Neurology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“Our results show that chocolate reduced ad libitum energy intake, consistent with the observed reduction in hunger, appetite and the desire for sweets shown in previous studies,” says study co-author Dr. Marta Garaulet, a visiting scientist at the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Departments of Medicine and Neurology, Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
The researchers say further studies are needed in men and younger women to confirm these results. They also cautioned that the study didn’t distinguish whether the reported effects were a result of the rewarding effect of chocolate, the specific chocolate components such as epicatechins or the high energy and sugar content of the chocolate.
Which milk chocolate to eat
It’s important to note that the study involved the consumption of 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces, of chocolate, which is equal to the size of this large Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bar. For comparison, you would need to eat a little more than two of these Hershey bars to get that same amount of milk chocolate.
If you are looking to add more milk chocolate to your diet, stick with plain milk chocolate without nuts or nougat or other additions. That will help keep the calorie count down and allow your body to absorb the full benefits of the chocolate.
Milk chocolate is generally required to contain 12 percent milk and at least 10 percent cocoa liquor, while the U.K. requires a minimum of 20 percent and Europe requires at least 25 percent. But if you can find it, try eating milk chocolate with a higher percentage of cacao. Many grocery stores and supermarkets now have a large selection of artisan milk chocolate that contains more cacao than you can find in mass-produced milk chocolate bars, while still qualifying as milk chocolate.
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Starting the Day Off with Chocolate Could Have Unexpected Benefits — Brigham and Women’s Hospital