Justifying Your Guilty Pleasure: Chocolate Is Good For The Brain 

Story at-a-glance

  1. New research reveals that chocolate consumption has benefits to cognitive function.
  2. Benefits can include visual-spatial memory, scanning and tracking, abstract reasoning and working memory.
  3. Eating the right type of chocolate matters.

So you pack your food with high quality fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. You buy the meat that’s been fed the right kind of feed, and you stay away from highly processed foods or anything laden with food additives or sugars. But you’ve still got this one Achilles heel – you just can’t resist the pull of chocolate. 

Stress less, friend! You are not alone and, as a longitudinal study from Maine now reveals, it turns out your guilty pleasure is actually associated with better cognitive function [1]. In fact, chocolate has been associated with a range of health benefits for about as long as history books can recall.  

Chocolate’s cardiovascular benefits have been well-researched over time too, with certain studies showing improvements in insulin sensitivity, blood pressure and cerebral blood flow [2, 3]. However, the effects of chocolate on behaviour and neuro-cognition have been a little less famous until now.

That’s what this research may help to put right. The study, titled The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study, was a cross-sectional analysis of nearly 1000 participants aged from 23 to 98 years old and drew on data collected over more than thirty years. It was a community-based study looking at cardiovascular risk and cognitive function in adults.

Here are some key findings [1]:

  • “Habitual chocolate intake was related to cognitive performance, measured with an extensive battery of neuropsychological tests.
  • “More frequent chocolate consumption was significantly associated with better performance on the Global Composite score, Visual-Spatial Memory and Organization, Working Memory, Scanning and Tracking, Abstract Reasoning, and the Mini-Mental State Examination.
  • “With the exception of Working Memory, these relations were not attenuated with statistical control for cardiovascular, lifestyle and dietary factors.

It might not surprise you that women consumed more chocolate than men. It also might not surprise you that those who ate chocolate on a weekly basis had higher total and LDL-cholesterol levels. This should effectively put the breaks on any chocolate binges you have planned as a result of this blog post, but still the cognitive benefits are noteworthy.

Positive effects include lower hypertension and Type 2 Diabetes in regular chocolate consumers. Additionally, from a dietary perspective, “those who ate chocolate also consumed more energy overall, and more daily serves of meat, vegetables and dairy foods, but significantly less alcohol.”

All cognitive scores were significantly higher in those who consumed chocolate at least once per week, than in those who never/rarely consumed chocolate.”

The key areas of cognitive benefit included significant positive associations with visual-spatial memory and organisation, working memory, scanning and tracking and abstract reasoning. The researchers went on to remark that:

“Chocolate intake was positively associated with cognitive performance, across a range of cognitive domains in this dementia-free, community-dwelling population. The associations between more frequent weekly chocolate consumption and cognitive performance remained significant after adjustment for a number of cardiovascular risk factors, including total and LDL-cholesterol, glucose levels, and hypertension. Associations were not attenuated with the addition of dietary variables (alcohol, meats, vegetables, and dairy foods), indicating that chocolate may be associated with cognition irrespective of other dietary habits.”

So it turns out that giving in to the pull of chocolate isn’t the worst thing you could do for your health. However, it is important to note that the study didn’t load people up with the high-sugar commercial chocolate bars we see at the supermarket. They were consuming drinks containing cocoa flavanols (plant-based phytonutrients). It is these nutrients that are thought to protect the brain against age-related cognitive decline [4].

Cocoa flavanols appear in much higher concentrates in dark chocolate. If you’re a milk chocolate or white chocolate lover, you might want to reconsider your preference in order to gain maximum benefit.

“According to a 2003 analysis by the USDA, a typical 100g bar of dark chocolate contains 53.49mg of cocoa flavanols, and milk chocolate contains an average of 13.35mg. In one of the studies from which this study gathered data, the participants who showed the most cognitive improvement consumed a drink containing 993mg of cocoa flavanols daily for 8 weeks [4].”

If you’re eating that much chocolate, your brain might be doing a whole lot better but your body probably won’t be that happy. But for now, maybe you can feel a little less guilty about the odd chocolate indulgence. Science says so. You’re welcome.

 

References

[1] Crichton, GE, Elias, MF and Alkerwi, A (2016), “Chocolate Intake is Associated with Better Cognitive Function: The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study,” Science Direct, , doi:10.1016/j.appet.2016.02.010, retrieved 9 March 2016

[2] Grassi, D., Lippi, C., Necozione, S., Desideri, G., & Ferri, C. (2005). Short-term administration of dark chocolate is followed by a significant increase in insulin sensitivity and a decrease in blood pressure in healthy persons. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 81, 611e614.

[3] Sorond, F. A., Lipsitz, L. A., Hollenberg, N. K., & Fisher, N. D. (2008). Cerebral blood flow response to flavanol-rich cocoa in healthy elderly humans. Neuropsychi- atric Disease and Treatment, 4, 433e440.

[4] Boscamp, E (2016), “Science says eating chocolate could improve your brain function,’ Mind Body Green,  retrieved 10 March 2016

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