Indulging in the occasional unhealthy meal or enjoying a delicious dessert like chocolate is part of a healthy lifestyle. Yes, you read that right.

As with any sort of indulging, moderation is key, but allowing yourself to eat treats is essential to sticking to a healthy diet long term. Avoiding sweet and salty foods entirely is not a sustainable option and often leads to binging on unhealthy foods. Instead, eat a little bit every so often to stay satisfied and on track to meet your nutrition goals.

Chocolate in particular can be irresistible, but did you know that it can be good for you? Dark chocolate has an abundance of antioxidants, making the treat a healthy one when eaten a little bit at a time.

Benefits of chocolate include brain and heart health, appetite control, and even a slimmer waistline, according to LiveScience. Research has shown that chocolate eaters tend to weigh less than those who don’t indulge in the treat. Scientists believe that a compound in chocolate may influence how the body processes it, turning it into something other than body fat. Dr. Beatrice Golomb, with the University of California, San Diego, cautions:

“This does not provide free license to eat 30 pounds of chocolate every time you eat chocolate.”

Life everything else in life, moderation is key.

The fiber in chocolate is believed to help people feel fuller and potentially consume fewer calories, which is one way the confection may help with weight management. Chocolate has also been found to help lower blood pressure and enhance how the body reacts to insulin, the hormone that manages blood sugar.

What makes chocolate healthy?

Chocolate contains micronutrients known as polyphenols, which are a type of antioxidant that works to prevent diseases like cancer and heart disease, according to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Cacao, the unsweetened bean from which chocolate is created from, is the source of its antioxidant properties. The effects are so powerful that the University of Michigan includes dark chocolate in its healing foods pyramid.

Even the fat in dark chocolate, although saturated, is a type called stearic acid that doesn’t significantly impact cholesterol levels, according to Weight Watchers. And while chocolate is still a treat to be eaten sparingly, it’s one of the healthiest treats to have and offers far more health benefits than a piece of cake or scoop of ice cream.

Researchers are still working to learn how chocolate works such magic on the body, but the American Chemical Society recently uncovered one way the dessert works its magic in the body.

The stomach contains two types of bacteria—one good and the other harmful, leading to bloating and indigestion. Turns out the good stomach bacteria enjoy dark chocolate as much as humans do; they feast on it, which leads to a fermentation process that produces anti-inflammatory compounds as a byproduct. The healthy compounds in turn help keep cardiovascular tissue healthy and reduce the risk of stroke.

How much chocolate is healthy to eat?

Up to one ounce of chocolate per day is a good amount to reap the health benefits without crossing the line, according to the University of Michigan.

Even though chocolate is healthy for a dessert, it still contains sugar and other additives, so the food is one to enjoy in limited quantities. Despite the many health benefits, it’s still better to ingest antioxidants and fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains instead of chocolate. And some types of chocolate offer more benefit than others.

Dark chocolate containing at least 60% cacao is the healthiest because it contains the least milk. Dairy molecules adhere to the antioxidants, making them less available to help the body reap all the wonderful health benefits. The higher the cacao content a piece of chocolate has, the healthier the chocolate. Higher counts also equate to less sugar, making for a more bitter, complex taste.

High-cacao content chocolate usually includes the percentage on its label while other types simply say “dark chocolate.” If eating chocolate specifically for the health benefits, be wary of packaging that doesn’t provide the exact percentage. Some mass produced dark chocolate from big, household-name brands may not include the minimum 60% cacao content to be considered healthy.

Other things to watch out for on the label are added ingredients. Higher quality chocolate tends to cost more, but has fewer additives that could detract from health benefits. Steer clear of chocolate containing palm or coconut oils, looking instead for those containing cocoa butter. Also try to avoid items with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils that can elevate cholesterol levels.

For the absolute best chocolate, go for organic or bars with fair-trade ingredients, which means the farmers and workers were paid good wages for their work.

Of course, if you like milk chocolate, go ahead and enjoy it. Just keep in mind that you’re not getting the maximum health benefits available. Either way, the desserts are meant to be eaten in moderation, and are a perfectly acceptable component of a healthy diet.

Other ways of indulging healthy

Some people opt to designate “cheat” meals or days where they allow themselves to eat whatever they want. So you might eat a diet based on fish and vegetables, but every Saturday enjoy fried chicken and ice cream.

The trick is having the discipline to keep cheating restricted only to that day or meal. It’s easy to let relaxed rules infiltrate during non-cheat times, but if you eat too much of an unhealthy food, it’s okay. Just start again and move forward without becoming too frustrated. Everyone makes mistakes.

To help restrict sweets to certain times or day of the week, consider finding healthy recipes that recreate the taste but with less sugar, fat, and calories. If you have a sweet tooth, experiment with making delicious, healthy smoothies. Those who enjoy salty foods like potato chips may want to try peanut butter coated on a piece of celery. It’s not quite the same, but will help tide you over until your designated indulging time.

And remember, an ounce of dark chocolate a day is a perfectly healthy way to satiate that ever-demanding sweet tooth while staying healthy at the same time.

Do you like dark chocolate?

Image by Ginny via Flickr

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