As we head towards the Easter long weekend and no doubt over-consumption of all things chocolate, we spoke with HMRI and University of Newcastle Molecular Nutritionist, Dr Emma Beckett, to get the truth about whether chocolate is really good or bad for you?
For many, Easter means chocolate… and a flurry of media pieces on the health benefits of chocolate – a quick google search and you can justify your Easter chocolate feast. While we all want to justify our food choices, I’m sorry to say that this won’t be one of those pieces – but do keep reading if you would like to ditch the side serving of guilt that often comes with your Easter chocolate.
Are there really studies that show that chocolate is a good for you?
There is LOTS of research on chocolate! And some studies show things like people who eat more chocolate have less heart disease, live longer, or they might even win more Nobel Prizes! But these studies can’t show that chocolate the cause. More likely regular chocolate consumption is a marker of wealth and wellbeing.
But mostly these are studies not on eating chocolate itself, but on high doses of compounds found in chocolate. Like theobromine - this compound has been shown to lower blood pressure, but even if you are eating dark chocolate, you would need to eat about 100g of chocolate to get an active dose – that’s a lot of chocolate and the sugar, fat and calories would likely outweigh any of the benefits from theobromine or other potentially beneficial compounds like antioxidants.
So chocolate is bad for us?
Chocolate can be high in sugars, calories and saturated fats – excess consumption of which can increase risks for conditions like heart disease. But, unless you are allergic to chocolate, or you hate it, there isn’t any reason to avoid it entirely. Nothing is off the table in a healthy balanced diet. For healthy eating it is recommended that we eat mostly fresh whole foods from the core food groups, but this doesn’t mean we need to abstain from other foods entirely.
Food isn’t just fuel. Food is part of our joy, celebrations, and culture. Not every food choice needs to be maximised and optimised for nutrition, food is much more complex than that.
So how much chocolate is too much?
About 25g of chocolate, or 4 squares in a standard block is one serve – the recommendations for limiting your serves depends on what else you are eating, how physically active you are, and what your goals are.
If you are feasting on Easter chocolates and you are concerned about your body being a temple, remember that a temple doesn’t crumble if you don’t take care of it for one day. Our regular patterns of eating matter more than our celebration feasts.
So why are we so keen to believe that chocolate is a health food?
We like to think we are sensible and rational in our decision making but we actually all have biases. Optimism bias means we over-estimate the chances of good things happening, and under-estimate the risks for the bad stuff. Confirmation and choice-supportive bias mean we are more likely to find and remember information that matches what we are already doing or want to do. Everyone does it.
The bottom line?
There are lots of jobs in careers in nutrition science, but food police is not one of them. Maybe other options, like chocolate mousse, or higher quality dark chocolate can give you that chocolately hit. But these won’t always meet our joy, celebration and cultural needs. So enjoy your Easter chocolate. But if you think you’re eating too much chocolate (or anything else) too often, the best thing to do is to see an Accredited Practicing Dietitian to get advice that works for you, your diet and your preferences.
Dr Emma Beckett is a molecular nutritionist and Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle. Dr Emma Beckett has a multi-faceted research background, with qualifications and experience in nutrition, epidemiology, science management, biomedical sciences, immunology and microbiology.