SOUND MIND, SOUND BODY: Chocolate gets bad rap; it's healthy

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Who doesn't like chocolate?

The food police may find it hard to take, but chocolate is a natural wonder drug. People believe it can causes acne and make you fat. These accusations are undeserved, and it turns out that chocolate has overwhelming healing powers.

In fact, researchers believe chocolate contains a multitude of heart-healthy and mood-enhancing phytochemicals that benefit not only the body but the mind as well.

Chocolate is a great source of antioxidants. Antioxidants are substances that help protect your body from damage occurring from exposure to certain chemicals, smoking, pollution and radiation.

One type of antioxidant called polyphenol is found in plant foods such as red wine and green tea.

Chocolate, it turns out, is particularly rich in polyphenols. It prevents the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, bad cholesterol, which is a major factor in the development of coronary disease. When cholesterol oxidizes, it tends to stick to artery walls, increasing the risk of a heart attack or stroke. The polyphenols in chocolate inhibit the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests adding only half an ounce of dark chocolate to an average American diet is enough to increase total antioxidant capacity 4 percent and lessen oxidation of LDL cholesterol.

That's not all. There is new evidence that suggests chocolate has the ability to normalize high blood pressure.

High blood pressure is a well known risk factor for heart disease. It is also one of the most common causes of kidney failure and a significant contributor to many kinds of dementia and cognitive impairment.

Studies have shown that consuming a small bar of dark chocolate daily can reduce blood pressure in people with mild hypertension. That has to be better than taking a pill.

Chocolate's benefits are not limited just to the health of the body. Chocolate has long been recognized for its remarkable effects on human mood. We are now beginning to understand why.

Chocolate is the richest source of a substance called theobromine, a close chemical relative of caffeine. Theobromine provides a much-needed lift to a brain fog. Chocolate also contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid that works to lessen anxiety by the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin and endorphins, the body's natural opiates.

Other compounds in chocolate regulate relaxation and serve as a natural painkiller.

Why does chocolate have such a bad rap? It's not the chocolate, it's the ingredients we add to it. Dark chocolate is healthier because it has less added sugar and fat.

I'm sure you don't need another lecture on the dangers of excess sugar consumption, but if you want to gain weight and dramatically raise your odds of developing diabetes, heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer's disease, foods high in sugar (including high fructose corn syrup) are just the ticket.

So stick with dark chocolate. Enjoying a piece of dark chocolate can inhibit the oxidation of cholesterol, decrease high blood pressure, clear your mind, and raise your spirits.

Nevertheless, just remember, moderation is key. A wise woman once said a two-pound box of chocolate is five pounds to the hips.

Christy Druffel received her bachelor of science degree from Oregon State University in exercise sport science and fitness program management. She has been working for the YMCA for the last 15 years and is the director of healthy living.

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