This Week’s Healthy Must-Have of the Week: Chocolate!

No, this is not a belated April Fools joke—chocolate is one of my healthy-eating essentials. I proudly admit that I love chocolate—dark chocolate, to be exact—and enjoy it guilt-free on occasion (depending on my mood, it can be one or two times per week). In addition to delivering an intense chocolate flavor, the sweet stuff boasts some impressive health benefits. Dark chocolate contains powerful chemicals called cocoa flavonols, plant compounds that offer up benefits like improved alertness and mood. Plus, there’s research that suggests those same compounds are also good for the heart and for keeping blood pressure under control.

To get these benefits, you need pretty high levels of flavonols; choosing dark chocolate that is at least 65 percent cocoa (most products will feature this information right on the label) will ensure that you’re getting a good dose of them. I generally opt for organic fair trade chocolate like Green & Black’s or Dagoba if I can, but that has more to do with the environment and the welfare of the people producing the chocolate than my own health. (Organic means that no harsh chemicals or pesticides were used to grow the cocoa beans and fair trade indicates that growers get fairly compensated for their work.) I also love the Hershey’s Dark Chocolate Tasting Squares because they’re individually wrapped for instant portion control and contain just 45 calories per square. One of my favorite treats is to pair a Dark Chocolate Tasting Square with a walnut halve, a piece of dried fruit like an apricot, and a hot cup of tea.

Of course, I also keep in mind that chocolate is high in sugar and fat, so I choose when and how much I indulge in wisely, sticking to no more than a 100-calorie serving (about two Hershey’s Squares or ½ ounce of chocolate). And when I do indulge, it’s slowly and mindfully, as if I’m tasting it for the first time, or like I’m tasting the finest wine. It can take me two minutes to eat a single Hershey’s tasting square from start to finish. That’s because when I eat chocolate, I use all of my senses. Here’s how I do it:

1. I slowly unwrap the chocolate, taking time to look at the packaging (which is often a small piece of art itself!) and the way the chocolate looks.

2. As I’m putting the chocolate in my mouth, I’m noticing the way it smells and feels in my hand and then on my tongue.

3. I let it sit on my tongue for a moment so it can melt slightly and coat my mouth.

4. I continue to let the chocolate melt, chewing as needed, to enjoy all of the flavor and texture characteristics of the chocolate. This helps me feel more satisfied—without having to eat a lot.

You’ll typically find a bar of dark chocolate—70 percent cocoa containing some type of nuts or dried fruit in my freezer (I like it really cold because then it doesn’t melt in my fingers), but I keep it behind an ice pack so it’’ not the first thing that I see. This helps me avoid grabbing a piece when I’m looking for something else, like frozen veggies. You can keep your chocolate in the pantry or refrigerator, as long as it’s out of immediate sight.

Any other chocolate lovers out there? Let me know your favorite way to eat chocolate.