The chocolate diet is a weight-loss plan that includes the daily consumption of limited amounts of dark chocolate. The phrase “chocolate diet” may also refer to the consumption of chocolate for its health benefit claims, such as lowering cholesterol.
Chocolate originated during the Classic Period of the Maya civilization (250–900 CE) in Mesoamerica, an area that encompassed the Tropic of Cancer in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. The Maya and their ancestors developed a method of converting the beans from the Theobroma cacao tree into a chocolate beverage. This process started with the harvesting, fermenting, and roasting of the beans. The beans were then ground into a paste and mixed with ingredients including water, chile peppers, and corn meal.
The Maya and the Aztecs in the fifteenth century used the bitter-tasting beverage in religious and royal ceremonies. Christopher Columbus saw that some of the Amerindians used cacao beans as currency. He took some cacao beans back to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Later explorers brought back the knowledge about how to convert the beans into a beverage. The Spanish added spices like cinnamon and sugar to the beverage to make it sweeter. The new beverage remained Spain's secret for a century.
Other Europeans eventually found out about the chocolate drink. It was an expensive indulgence, only affordable to the upper classes. That changed with the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s. Mass production brought down the cost of manufacturing treats, including solid chocolate. Another milestone occurred in 1875 when Daniel Peter and Henri Nestlé created milk chocolate by adding condensed milk to chocolate.
During the 1990s and in subsequent years, researchers began investigating the health benefits of chocolate. At around the same time, several books began promoting weight-loss plans that involved chocolate. In 1999, the book The Pasta-Popcorn-Chocolate Diet was published (now out of print). Sally Ann Voak's The Chocolate Diet was published in 2001. Voak, a British journalist, targeted her diet toward “chocoholics,” people who have trouble resisting chocolate. Her book included six diets and the promise that people could eat chocolate and lose weight. The book is also now out of print.
Two other books titled The Chocolate Diet have been published as of 2012; one in 2011, by Drs. John Ashton and Lily Stojanovska, and another in 2012, by Rachel Henderson. Both books emphasize the health benefits of chocolate and how, in moderation, it can be included in a diet that results in weight loss.
Cocoa beans contain approximately 50% fat; 1 oz. (28 g) of chocolate contains approximately 150 calories and. 3 oz. (8.5 g) of fat. While the calorie and fat gram counts can contribute to weight gain if too much is eaten, the cocoa butter in chocolate contains oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated, or “healthy” fat. Chocolate also contains forms of saturated fat known as stearic and palmitic acids. Palmitic acid in particular has been linked to higher levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL). Also known as “bad” cholesterol, increased LDL cholesterol can clog arteries, raising the risk for heart disease. Palmitic acid forms one-third of the fat calories in chocolate; stearic acid appears to have no effect on cholesterol levels.
Cacao beans contain flavonoids, a broad category of plant products that act as antioxidants. Antioxidants are thought to be effective in helping to prevent cancer, heart disease, and strokes. Sources of flavonoids include citrus fruits, onions, green tea, red wine, and dark chocolate with a cocoa content of 70% or higher. Flavonoids also relax the blood vessels, allowing blood to circulate. Chocolate belongs to a subgroup of flavonoids called flavonols.
The presence of plant chemicals like flavonoids is related to the color of the chocolate. There are more flavonoids in dark chocolate than there are in milk or other types of chocolate. Dark chocolate is also known as semisweet or bittersweet chocolate because it contains little or no sugar. It is frequently categorized by its cocoa content, which ranges from 30% for sweet dark chocolate to 70% or sometimes above 80%. A higher percentage indicates a higher degree of bitterness.
Milk chocolate contains fewer flavonoids than dark chocolate but tastes sweeter. American chocolate contains milk, while European varieties often contain condensed milk. White chocolate lacks flavonoids because there are no cocoa solids in it. It is considered a chocolate because cocoa butter is usually an ingredient. Some white chocolate is made with vegetable fats.
Chocolate also contains caffeine and theobromine, a chemical similar to caffeine. Phenylethylamine is a stimulant found in chocolate, but there is an insignificant amount of this chemical in the processed form of chocolate.
The premise of most chocolate diets is that by allowing foods (in this case, chocolate) that are usually forbidden in other diets, dieters will be more likely to stick to their weight-loss plans. Though the chocolate diet is generally considered a fad diet, the notion of allowing “treats” may be beneficial to weight-loss goals. Believing that certain foods are “forbidden” may increase the desire to consume those foods, resulting in binge eating and weight cycling or weight gain. Instead, people should aim to eat a healthy and balanced diet, incorporating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, with sweets or other treat foods allowed in moderation.
CocoaVia is a line of cocoa extract supplements developed by Mars Botanicals, a division of Mars Incorporated. The CocoaVia brand came on the market in 2003 in chocolate bar form and claimed that the bars supported heart health. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning to the company citing adulteration (for containing folic acid as a food additive) and misbranding—due to the significant amount of saturated fat in the recommended daily serving of two chocolate bars, the heart-healthy benefits were negated. By 2009, the CocoaVia chocolate bars were no longer manufactured.
After significantly changing the CocoaVia product, packaging, and labeling, it reentered the marketplace as a cocoa extract supplement in single-serve powder packets (to be added to food and drinks). Suggestions include adding it to oatmeal, yogurt, tea, or smoothies. According to the nutritional label, each serving of the cocoa extract supplement contains 250 mg of cocoa flavonols extracted from 100% pure cocoa. The dark chocolate flavors have 30 calories, .02 oz (.5 g) fat, and 0 oz. (0 g) sugar. Fruit flavors have 20 calories, 0 oz. (0 g) fat, and 0 oz. (0 g) sugar.
Chocolate diets are used to satisfy dieters' cravings by allowing limited amounts of chocolate. Consuming dark chocolate may also provide health benefits. It is important to distinguish, however, between dark and milk chocolate, as the latter is generally more processed and higher in sugar.
People who are allergic to chocolate should not consider any form of diet involving chocolate. People with other conditions, such as elevated LDL or total cholesterol levels, should consult their physicians before beginning a diet or health regimen involving the daily consumption of chocolate. It may be necessary to have their cholesterol tested. People who are overweight or obese should ask their health professionals whether it is wise to include chocolate in their diets.
A meta-analysis of studies on chocolate, published in BMJ in 2011, found that participants who regularly consumed dark chocolate were 37% less likely to develop heart disease and 29% less likely to have a stroke. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012 evaluated the relationship between chocolate consumption and a lower body mass index. Although further research is required, the preliminary study found that participants who consumed moderate amounts of chocolate tended to lose more weight than those who did not consume any chocolate or ate it less frequently. This may have been because, by being permitted an indulgence, the dieters did not feel deprived. Though more research is needed, chocolate eaten in moderation can certainly fit into a healthy diet.
See also Antioxidants ; Caffeine ; Cravings .
Ashton, John, and Lily Stojanovska. The Chocolate Diet: How A Delicious Food Can Be Healthy Too. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Kindle edition.
Orey, Cal. The Healing Powers of Chocolate. New York: Kensington Books, 2010.
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Golomb, Beatrice, Sabrina Koperski, and Halbert White. “Association Between More Frequent Chocolate Consumption and Lower Body Mass Index.” Archives of Internal Medicine 172, no. 6 (March 26, 2012): 519–21.
“Cocoa Flavanols and Health.” MARS, Inc. http://www.cocoavia.com/mars-and-cocoa-flavanols (accessed March 19, 2018).
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O'Connor, Anahad. “The Chocolate Diet?” Well (blog), New York Times, March 26, 2012. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/26/the-chocolate-diet (accessed March 15, 2018).
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 120 South Riverside Plz., Ste. 2000, Chicago, IL, 60606-6995, (312) 899-0040, (800) 877-1600, email@example.com, http://www.eatright.org .
American Heart Association, 7272 Greenville Ave., Dallas, TX, 75231, (800) 242-8721, http://www.heart.org .
Center for Science in the Public Interest, 1220 L St., NW, Ste. 300, Washington, DC, 20005, (202) 332-9110, http://www.cspinet.org .