Does chocolate deserve to be seen as a guilty pleasure, and what sort of place can it have in a healthy lifestyle?
If chocolate and coffee were people, they would probably get along great. Together, they could commiserate over being unfairly portrayed as guilty pleasures when really they each have much to offer. Their reputations are not based on themselves, but rather on the company they keep.
Take chocolate for instance. A tablespoon of pure cocoa powder is low in calories (12) and virtually free of sugar (0.09 g), provides a bit of fiber (1.8 g) and even a little protein (1.06 g), and contains calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, trace amounts of vitamins, and other antioxidants, too. Sure, it contains caffeine as well (12 mg), but not enough to be a concern for most people.
Despite pure chocolate’s health benefits, consuming it plain is a rough experience. In fact, some of my high school friends used to do it as a dare. To make pure chocolate more palatable and enjoyable, people typically add sugar and fat. These added ingredients, when consumed in excess, are what can be detrimental to our health, not the chocolate itself.
If you want to capitalize on chocolate’s health benefits while minimizing the sugar and fat, opt for dark chocolate, or make hot cocoa from scratch so you are in charge of the recipe. For those of you who are truly adventurous with your eating, add a spoonful of plain cocoa powder to your morning oatmeal.
Alternatively, if you are like me and no form of chocolate quite hits the spot like full-of-fat-and-sugar milk chocolate, leave the guilt part of “guilty pleasure” aside and just go for it. Balanced eating and a healthy relationship with food certainly have room for some candy.
Among my patients, there doesn’t seem to be a more polarizing food than chocolate. Many of my patients have a love/hate relationship with it. On the one hand, it’s the quintessential indulgence, one to be savored on special occasions and eaten with gusto. On the other hand, especially for those who are struggling with an eating disorder, chocolate can be a fear food, one that they feel they cannot control themselves around, that once they start eating it, they won’t be able to stop, resulting in exponential weight gain.
While everyone can agree that chocolate does have some well-documented health benefits due to its antioxidants, a great number of my clients treat chocolate with kid gloves, oftentimes limiting it or completely omitting it from their intake. When I try to explain to these clients that chocolate, like every other food, can have a place in one’s diet, the common response is: So you’re trying to tell me that a Snickers bar and a plate of broccoli are nutritional equals?! Isn’t it better to be eating only foods that are nutritious and cut out all the other junk?!
My response to the above question is this: Food is not just fuel. Yes, our bodies use the food we eat for a number of physiological functions, but there is a lot more to the act of eating. Food is enjoyment, pleasure, connection, and memories. Sometimes food is fun, and sometimes it’s more functional. Would I suggest that someone eat only a diet of chocolate? Of course not. Similarly, I would not suggest that someone eat only a diet of the most nutrient-dense foods possible. Balance is key, and there is room for all different kinds of food in your life.
So, if you are really having a craving for chocolate, I say go ahead and have it! Just make sure to savor and enjoy every bite.