Tag Archives: diet

Forget about low-carb, go smart carb.

Nutrition advice tends to be complicated and contradictory, making simple answers to the question, “What should I eat?” anything but simple (but you still need to do it!). This is particularly true when it comes to carbohydrates. On one hand, current recommendations call for carbohydrates to be the major part of your diet. On the other hand, low-carbohydrate diets are at odds with these recommendations but are still very popular.

For example, the Atkins diet restricts all carbohydrates, including refined grains and sugars. The Paleolithic diet emphasizes minimally processed foods that may have been consumed by our ancient ancestors including lean meat, eggs, fruit, and vegetables while restricting the consumption of grains and added sugars. Both have been shown to promote weight loss better than traditional low-fat diets.

Proponents of low-carbohydrate diets claim that restricting carbohydrates promotes fat loss and eating carbohydrates leads to fat storage and weight gain. It is also likely that people who follow low-carbohydrate diets find them easier to stick to than other diets, so they may actually end up eating fewer calories.

But the problem may not be carbohydrates in general, it might be eating too few of the right carbohydrates. Given that September is Whole Grains Month, this seems like a good time to explore the benefits of going smart-carb instead of low-carb. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Food grains


Sources of carbohydrates include whole grains (such as whole wheat bread), refined grains (white bread), and sugars. Both refined grains and sugars tend to raise blood glucose rapidly, called the glycemic index, which leads to an increase in certain hormones, including insulin. Insulin stimulates the uptake of nutrients into cells, including the storage of fat in adipose tissue. This is one reason why carbohydrates are linked to fat gain and why restricting carbohydrates leads to fat loss.

But carbohydrates from whole grains don’t raise either blood glucose or insulin as much. This “low and slow” response has several benefits, including improved blood glucose regulation, lower triglycerides, and, potentially, reduced fat storage. For these reasons, complex carbohydrates from whole grains are called “good carbs,” in contrast to refined grains and sugars, known as “bad carbs.”

Considering that the typical American diet contains too much carbohydrate from sugars and refined grains and not enough whole grains, restricting carbohydrates may have some benefits. But there is another approach: be smart about your carbohydrate choices. Instead of cutting out all carbohydrates, focus on reducing refined grains and sugars and emphasizing whole grains.

You can meet this goal by limiting your intake of sugars, especially added sugars, and refined grains while increasing your consumption of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables that are high in fiber. When comparing food labels, look for foods that contain whole grains (the first ingredient should be something like “whole wheat flour”) and higher levels of fiber. But be aware that some foods, like many breakfast cereals, contain whole grains but are also high in added sugar. The best advice is to get the majority of your carbohydrates from real food, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, rather than from processed foods.

Something to keep in mind is that although low-carbohydrate diets are associated with weight loss and good health, they are not the only way to achieve these benefits. Indeed, people who are considered to be fit and healthy have a wide range of eating patterns, from vegetarian and low-fat diets to extreme low-carbohydrate diets and everything in between. The one factor they have in common is that they are active. It may be that regular exercise is just as important as what you eat when it comes to promoting health.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility.

Eating well and being physically active are two of the most important things you can do to promote good health. But knowing you should do these things does not always mean it is easy to actually do them.

Despite the simplicity of the message “eat healthy and exercise,” many people struggle with knowing exactly what to do and how to do it. This is largely due to the complicated and ever-changing nature of nutrition and exercise information and the fact that most people receive no education in these areas.

You may even feel like the information you read and hear is designed to confuse you. That may be true, considering that much of the nutrition information we get comes from food companies that are trying to convince us to buy their products. Even scientific research can yield conflicting results, challenging even the most knowledgeable professionals, myself included, to make sense of it. And even if you do decide to make eating or activity changes, the “best” diet or exercise program claims may make you wonder if you made the right choice.

Given this, it’s not your fault if you struggle to understand basic health information and recommendations. But it is your responsibility to learn as much as you can to make the best choices for you and your family.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week

Man shopping in supermarket

This won’t be easy, of course. The popular media, as well as social media, promote confusion and false promises about nutrition by making claims that some foods are “toxic” while others are “superfoods.” The old good carb, bad carb or good fat, bad fat arguments have been given a new life as eat this, not that lists. The problem is that many of these claims are not supported by science. The research that is done often yields complicated or conflicting results that aren’t explained in a way that actually helps people make good decisions.

The same is true for exercise. No one doubts that exercise and physical activity are essential for good health, but there are conflicting claims about specific benefits of exercise and what the best form of exercise really is. This can lead to the idea that if you aren’t doing the right exercise, it doesn’t count. Nothing could be further from the truth! While there are reasons why some athletes might want specific types of training, the majority of people can benefit from simply spending less time sitting and going for a walk each day.

So, what can you do? Given the confusing and changing nutrition recommendations it’s best to focus on what hasn’t changed. That is, to focus on eating real food rather than processed, prepackaged foods. Planning meals and snacks to include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, lean meat, eggs, and dairy should give you plenty of healthy fats, carbohydrates, and proteins.

Instead of worrying about the “perfect” exercise, make it your goal to do something active for at least 30 minutes every day.  Beyond that, dedicating time for aerobic, strength, and flexibility exercise will bring greater benefits. Remember, the best exercise for you is the one you will do! Seek advice from people you trust and credible professionals, but remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Your responsibility isn’t to understand all of the nutrition, exercise, and health information you hear. It’s to make an effort to make a few simple, healthy choices despite that confusing information: Sit less, move more, and eat real food.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Affordable care acts

The Affordable Care Act is in the news again, this time because the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled on the legality of subsidies offered to help people afford health insurance. Health care has long been an important and contentious topic in both political and social circles. Given the importance that accessing quality health care has for everyone, it is unfortunate that promoting good health has turned into a political debate.

In addition to expanding access to health care, the Affordable Care Act should also make it easier for people to get preventive care. This is important since preventable chronic diseases including diabetes and heart disease, are among the leading causes of disability and death as well as contributing to high health care costs. It turns out that adopting some simple lifestyle modifications can go a long way toward making you and your family healthier, as well as saving money.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

2013-10-24 15.59.46


Here are a few affordable care acts you can implement today:

1. Move more

Significant health benefits, including weight loss and improved fitness, can be achieved with as little as 30 minutes of activity per day, but more is better. The activity doesn’t have to be “exercise.” It can include walking the dog, yard work, or house work. Research shows that sitting too much is just as unhealthy as not exercising. Spending less time sitting at work, home, or in the car is another easy way to improve health. And getting up and moving for even a few minutes is better than staying seated for long periods of time. Every little bit of activity really does count.

2. Eat smart

Making dietary changes can be difficult, but a few simple changes can lead to big benefits. Eating more real food including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats and less added sugar is a good place to start. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grain bread, pasta, and cereals are rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber and most are low in calories. Eating less added sugar in sweets and processed foods can help you cut down on calories and lead you toward healthier food choices. Controlling portion sizes plays as big of a role in weight gain and loss as the types of food you eat, so pay attention to how much you eat, especially when you eat out. Chances are, it is more than you think!

3. Chill out.

Reducing and managing stress is essential for good health. Uncontrolled stress can lead to high blood pressure, poor immune function, and weight gain. Daily exercise will help, as will using stress management techniques like progressive relaxation. When you can, avoiding stressful situations is wise. Taking time to do something you enjoy each day is a good idea, too. Getting enough sleep (most adults require 7–9 hours) is also important for good physical and mental health.

4. Don’t smoke

Cigarette smoking more than doubles your risk of heart disease and stroke, and is by far the leading cause of lung cancer and other lung diseases. If you smoke, quitting now is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health—and the health of those around you. Nicotine replacement therapy and prescription medications can help, but quitting really does require serious dedication. It’s well worth the effort and the benefits of quitting can be realized almost immediately.

Regular activity, quitting smoking, managing stress, and the types of dietary changes described here can have a profound effect on preventing and treating many health problems. Best of all, these affordable care acts are basically free to implement and can lead to both health and financial savings now and in the future.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Losing weight is easy, not finding it again is the hard part.

Earlier this week I wrote about tips and tricks from people who are successful losing weight. While some people may make it look easy, losing weight is challenging, to be sure. But maintaining weight loss can be even more challenging.

Many people think that they are finished once their diet or weight loss program ends. The truth is that the end of the diet marks the beginning of the next phase: keeping the weight off. In fact, many people have successfully met their weight loss goal only to gain the weight back later. In fact, some people do it every year, losing and regaining the same 10 (or more) pounds over and over.

There is a practical reason why this happens. In order to lose weight and keep it off people need to learn a whole new lifestyle involving what, when, why, and how they eat as well as daily exercise. These lifestyle changes are difficult to make and can take months or years to fully adopt. In many cases, the weight loss program ends before people make lasting behavior changes. This makes it all too easy to revert to old habits.

While there are literally hundreds of diets and weight loss programs to choose from, “weight maintenance” programs are far less common. The good news is that following the advice of people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off can help you maintain your weight loss.

The members of the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) — the “successful losers” have lost an average of 66 pounds and kept it off for over five years the — provide insight into how they keep the weight off. Most report continuing to maintain a low-calorie, low-fat diet and doing high levels of activity. Almost 80% eat breakfast every day, 75% weigh themselves at least once a week, over 60% watch less than 10 hours of TV per week, and 90% exercise, on average, about 1 hour per day.

Many people worry whether they are following the “best” diet or weight loss program. The specific diet may not be as important as what you do when it ends. Notice that the majority of successful losers still control what they eat and nearly all exercise each day. This suggests that going back to the way you ate before you lost weight is unrealistic. And if you aren’t exercising, at least walking, every day already, now is a good time to start.


Nutrition, exercise, and health information can be confusing. 
But it doesn't have to be that way.
What can I help you with?
 drbrianparr@gmail.com | http://twitter.com/drbrianparr

Want to know how to lose weight? Ask the experts.

For a great many people, losing weight is a struggle. For starters, selecting a diet to follow or program to join can be a difficult decision. In fact, the great debate about which diet is the best seems to create more confusion than answers. Add to that the conflicting reports about what to do for exercise, and the confusion grows. Then, the real challenges begin. Knowing what to do is relatively easy compared learning a whole new lifestyle involving what, when, why, and how to eat and exercise. Losing weight is hard work, far from the effortless portrayal in advertisements, in which the fat just seems to melt away.

There are some people who make losing weight look easy. No question, these people have to plan to eat healthy meals, dedicate time for exercise, and deal with cravings just like everyone else.  But it seems as though they have figured out the secret of how to lose weight. It turns out that there isn’t really one thing that people do to be successful, but there are some common behaviors that the “successful losers” share. Following the advice of people who are successful at losing weight and keeping it off can help you achieve your weight loss goals.

This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


The good news is that this advice is available. The National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) is a collection of information submitted by individuals who have succeeded at long-term weight loss. These “successful losers” have lost an average of 66 pounds and kept it off for over five years, with some losing as much as 300 pounds! Best of all, they share the secrets of their success. Almost all of them increased their physical activity and modified their diet, suggesting that eating less and moving more are necessary for successful weight loss.

Closer to home, I am loosely involved with a local, workplace-based weight loss and fitness program. The comments from the participants about what they are doing and challenges they are facing is especially interesting. The experience of participants in this program supports the findings from the NWCR and provides more specific information about what works.

First, nearly all of the participants have changed what they eat. Some follow a specific diet while others report that they are simply eating less or eliminating certain foods, such as fried foods or desserts. The Paleo diet and eating less processed foods seem to be popular approaches, but participants mention a wide variety of diets and weight loss programs.

Second, almost everyone has become more active. For some, this means going for a 30 minute walk every day while others do more, including exercise at a gym or training for a half marathon. Some participants note that they are progressing from shorter bouts of light intensity activity to longer, more vigorous exercise. This is a natural progression that further increases fitness and energy expenditure.

Finally, many of the participants report that some sort of support has helped keep them on track. This includes social support from coworkers, friends, and families, many of whom have joined in the health improvement process. But support also comes in the form of devices and apps that track and provide feedback about their activity and what they eat. The popularity of these tools suggests that they are helpful, but any method to provide accountability would work.

The bottom line is that the participants in this program, just like the NWCR members, are focusing on “eating less” and “moving more” in some way and relying on some form of support to keep them on track. The good news is, there is no one right way to lose weight. The trick is to find something that works for you, given your current health, interests, and lifestyle.

Exercise, like all prescriptions, only works if you use it as directed.

Earlier this week  I wrote about the Exercise is Medicine initiative and why physicians should prescribe exercise to all of their patients.

Despite the widely-known benefits of exercise, many physicians—and people in general—believe that chronic health conditions should be managed using medications, not  proper nutrition and physical activity. This is a misguided approach considering that weight gain and health conditions related to weight gain  accumulate over a period of years, resulting from eating too much combined with low levels of activity.

One reason that physicians are hesitant to prescribe exercise (and, similarly, good nutrition) is that in their experience, it doesn’t work. What they mean is that the results they see after recommending lifestyle modifications are typically not sufficient. So the assumption made by doctors and patients is that lifestyle modifications don’t work. But this is not necessarily the case

This debate comparing lifestyle modification with medical management of chronic diseases is familiar. Consider statins, the popular lipid-lowering medications that are currently among the most-prescribed drugs (examples include Lipitor, Zocor, Crestor and Vytorin). The effect of statin drugs on lowering blood lipids is significant in most patients. This, together with clever marketing to both patients and physicians, explains why they are so widely used.

It is possible to lower blood lipids as much as statins by carefully controlling diet and regular exercise, but it is difficult. How difficult depends on the individual, but everyone would agree that successful lifestyle modification takes more effort and dedication than taking a pill. In order for any treatment to work, it has to be followed. A patient who doesn’t follow their diet or exercise program is no different from a patient who doesn’t take their medication as directed. In both cases, the response to the treatment will fall short of expectations.

If someone didn’t take their statin medication and their blood cholesterol didn’t go down, no one would label the drug a failure. The medication may well have worked if the patient took it. But people routinely claim that diet and exercise don’t work, when the real problem is that these treatments aren’t followed. This could be because the patients weren’t provided with appropriate and actionable information or because they didn’t faithfully follow the instructions they were given.

The problem isn’t that lifestyle modification isn’t effective, it’s that people don’t implement healthy changes for the long-term. Whereas a statin drug results in rapid changes, the benefits of behavior change are realized more slowly. This can lead to the incorrect conclusion that diet and exercise aren’t working, even though they are.

In reality, medication can be part of a treatment plan, but should not be the only prescription.  Long-term health benefits come from changing eating and activity patterns. Medications should be used as a  “jump start” to treating a condition, with a goal of developing a new way of eating and regular activity as the long-term treatment.

For example, medications like statins can lower cholesterol quickly. Then, lifestyle changes can keep the cholesterol down, reducing the need for the drug. Since side effects depend on the dose and duration of treatment, this approach would reduce the risk of potentially dangerous side effects.

For many patients, lifestyle changes are effective on their own, meaning the medication isn’t necessary. And consider this: maintaining a healthy body weight, proper nutrition, and regular exercise has been proven to be the best—and at this point, only—way to prevent most of the health problems most of us will face. Good nutrition and physical activity really are the best medicine!

Driving yourself to the doctor.

Have you ever thought about how much time you spend in your car? On average, Americans face a 50-minute round-trip drive each day just for their jobs, and nearly thee-quarters of commuters drive alone. In suburban and metropolitan areas the commute can be much longer. Even in Aiken the average commute time is about 23 minutes. When you include driving to work, taking the kids to school, and doing errands, sitting in a car can easily account for an hour or more each day.

You can find the average commute time in your area using this really cool interactive map from WNYC.

You are probably very aware of the time you spend in the car. What you may not know is that sitting in your car can also have negative effects on your health and happiness. This is the conclusion of several studies that examined the relationship between commuting time and indicators of health. One of these studies suggests that vehicle miles traveled is a strong predictor of obesity. In another study, commuting a greater distance was associated with lower levels of physical activity and fitness as well as a higher waist circumference and blood pressure.

This makes sense because spending more time sitting in your car means you have less time to dedicate to being physically active, something we know is good for your health. Add to that the fact that driving is sedentary. There is accumulating evidence that spending more time sitting in the car, at work, or at home is a predictor of poor health, regardless of how active you are the rest of the day.

It gets worse. Many people eat in their cars during long commutes. Much of the time these “meals” consist of fast food and other prepackaged foods—not many people eat salads while they drive! Since these foods are typically of questionable nutritional quality and high in calories, this alone can contribute to obesity and poor health. The combination of inactivity and eating behind the wheel can easily shift the balance toward weight gain. Plus, eating while you drive is dangerous!

Beyond the direct impact on health through eating and activity behaviors, commuting alone in a car is a form of social isolation. Research suggests that this can lead to depression, itself an important factor leading to poor health.

The problems with long commute times are well established and easy to appreciate. Unfortunately, the solutions are not. Most people can’t move in order to have a shorter commute and relying on public transportation isn’t practical or even possible for many people, especially in our area. Replacing driving a car with active modes of transportation simply isn’t practical.

Aside from the time requirement—imagine how long a 25 minute drive would take on a bike or on foot!—our environment doesn’t adequately support active travel. Being able to walk or bike requires access to safe bike lanes and sidewalks that connect people’s homes to work, school, and other destinations. Even public transportation increases activity over driving and enhances social connections. Sadly, this infrastructure doesn’t exist in most communities, which were built to support cars, not people.

But we can take steps to undo some of the damage that so much driving can cause. Making activity at other times of the day a priority is a good start. This could include exercise at the gym, going for a walk, or even yard work or housework. When possible, replace car trips with walking or biking. Planning these activities with others can strengthen social connections as well as improve health and fitness. Finally, act as an advocate for changes in the community that will make active transportation more realistic.

When it comes to making good food choices, knowledge is power.

My Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week is about making smart food choices and how the nutrition information we are provided with can complicate that process.


Making smart decisions about what you eat is an important step in losing weight, feeling better, and preventing and treating a host of health conditions. But doing so requires that you have the knowledge to make those healthy decisions. Unfortunately, most people don’t have a good education in nutrition, forcing them to rely on information provided to them.

Some of this information comes from reputable sources and is based on research and experience. More often, though, nutrition information is provided by food manufacturers whose interests may not be consistent with providing smart recommendations. The end result is that consumers (that’s us) may not understand the information they get or know how to use it to make healthy choices.

A good example is the health claims about whole grains found on many food packages, including breakfast cereals. “A good source of whole grains,” is a common claim. Most people would reasonably interpret as a sign that the food inside is healthy, or at least is healthier than similar foods that don’t contain whole grains.

These types of claims are allowed by the FDA, but they refer only to what is in the food, not whether it is healthy or not. Many of the foods bearing this claim probably are healthy choices, but this isn’t always the case.

For example, Lucky Charms cereal contains whole grains. In fact, whole grains are the first ingredient, as the claim on the box indicates. Sounds good, right? But, when you read the Nutrition Facts panel on the side of the box you will find that the second ingredient is marshmallows! Does that sound like a healthy breakfast? (Hint: It’s not!)

Lucky_Charms package

 

This is the problem. If you are like most people, you won’t take the time to read the ingredients or the nutrition information on the back of the package. And even if you do, you may find that information to be confusing. Even if you wanted to make healthy choices, you might not have the knowledge to interpret and apply the available nutrition information.

This general lack of knowledge we have about nutrition has led to situations in which some foods are restricted or banned. Recently, the city of Berkeley, California voted to impose a tax on soda and other sugary drinks in an effort to keep people from consuming too much sugar and too many calories.

This effort, and others like it, have contributed to a vigorous debate about personal choice and freedom for people to make their own decisions about what to eat and drink. One argument against these types of restrictions is that if people have the nutrition information about soda (or any other food) they can make informed choices.

This is a nice idea, but it simply isn’t fair to expect people to make good decisions if the information isn’t available or is not easy to understand. Worse, misleading information can lead to making bad decisions.

Help may be on the way. The FDA is working on a redesigned Nutrition Facts panel that should help us make better food choices. In particular, the amount of sugar added to foods will be listed. This change alone will help identify foods that may appear to be healthy, like Lucky Charms which contain whole grains, but are actually high in added sugar. Additional changes include more realistic serving sizes and better information about fat content.

It is unclear when the updated nutrition facts panel will be implemented. In the meantime, do your best to read labels and use common sense as your guide: The addition of marshmallows does not make any food any healthier, no matter how much whole grain it contains!

Numbers you need to know to prevent and treat heart disease.

February is American Heart Month, an ideal time to assess your risk of heart disease and take steps to improve your health. When it comes to heart disease, there are several numbers, including your blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose, you (or your doctor) may be monitoring. But there is another set of numbers that are equally important for preventing and treating heart disease that you may not be familiar with: 0, 5, 10, 25, and 30.

What these numbers mean and why they are so important is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


 

Blood test results

0 is for no smoking. Cigarette smoking more than doubles your risk of heart disease and stroke, is by far the leading cause of lung cancer and other lung diseases, and is responsible for over 400,000 deaths per year. If you smoke, quitting now is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. Nicotine replacement therapy in the form of gum, lozenges, and patches as well as prescription medications can help, but quitting really does require serious dedication. It’s well worth the effort and some benefits of quitting can be realized almost immediately.

5 is for eating five fruits and vegetables each day. A healthy diet is one important aspect of good health. While there is no one single measure of a healthy diet, adequate fruit and vegetable consumption is widely considered to be essential for good health. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber and most are low in calories. At a minimum, you should eat five servings per day with an emphasis of fresh fruits and vegetables. Your real goal should be to include fruits and vegetables in all meals and snacks, but five servings per day is a good start.

10 is for 10,000 steps per day. Regular physical activity is essential for good health. Almost any activity counts, and a good goal is to be as active as possible throughout the day. You can track your physical activity using a pedometer (step counter) or an app on your phone. A target of 10,000 steps per day is a commonly cited goal, but you should try to take as many steps as possible. You can do this by minimizing the time you spend sitting, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and walking instead of driving when possible. More steps are better, even if you don’t get to 10,000.

25 is for maintaining a healthy body weight, or a body mass index (BMI) of less than 25. The BMI is a measure of weight relative to height. A BMI of 18–25 is considered healthy, 25–29 is considered overweight, and 30 and higher is considered obese. The risk of health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers goes up with BMI, so maintaining a healthy body weight is good for your health. If you are overweight you should lose weight, even if you don’t achieve a BMI of less than 25.

30 is for 30 minutes of exercise per day. In addition to being as active as possible throughout the day, you should dedicate a minimum of 30 minutes for exercise or other activity. Considerable research shows that as little as 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity leads to improved fitness and health with greater benefits coming from longer duration or higher intensity activity. This can include exercise—a brisk walk or jog, lifting weights, or other aerobic exercise—as well as other activities like housework and yard work. Your goal should be to sit as little as possible, move as much as possible, and make time each day to be active.

Is chocolate healthy? The depends on what you mean by chocolate. And what you mean by healthy.

With Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, you may be planning to get something sweet for someone special. Traditionally, this typically includes a box of chocolates. While candy isn’t really a healthy option, eating certain types of chocolate has been linked to some health benefits.

The idea that chocolate may be healthy is no doubt welcome news for chocoholics. But it may leave you wondering if eating chocolate really is healthy. The answer depends on what you mean by chocolate and what you mean by healthy.

ChocolateA

First, it is worth understanding what it is about chocolate that may promote health. The health benefits of chocolate have to do with the fact that it comes from a plant, the cacao tree. Like many plant-based foods including fruits and vegetables, chocolate contains phytochemicals, plant-derived compounds that have health benefits. Indeed, chocolate does contain antioxidant flavonoids that have been shown to affect a variety of physiological systems. These flavonoids are also found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as well as coffee, tea, and wine. The beneficial effects include dilation of blood vessels, improved blood clotting, and reduced inflammation, all of which can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases including heart attack and stroke. Additionally, these flavonoids may lower blood pressure, regulate insulin levels, and reduce stress.

The chocolate that we eat contains two main components from the cacao plant, cocoa and cocoa butter, in addition to added sugar and other ingredients. Cocoa is the non-fat component of the cocoa bean and cocoa butter is mostly fat. The flavonoids are found in the cocoa, so chocolate that is richer in cocoa, like dark chocolate, contains more of these beneficial compounds. For example, dark chocolate may contain 70% cocoa, compared to 25% cocoa in milk chocolate. These flavonoids also give dark (sometimes called semi-sweet) chocolate more of a bitter flavor than milk or white chocolate. This is also because dark chocolate may contain less sugar than milk chocolate, but this isn’t always true.

Milk chocolate contains more of the cacao butter along with other additives, usually milk. White chocolate is made exclusively from the cocoa butter and contains no cocoa, so none of the beneficial phytochemicals. Even though the fat in cocoa butter is mostly healthier monounsaturated and saturated fats, it still contains calories. Sugar, milk, and other ingredients also add calories, so chocolate is certainly something to enjoy in moderation.

One thing to keep in mind is that some of the research into the health benefits of chocolate was conducted in animals, not humans. And some of the research in humans used isolated extracts from the cacao plant, not chocolate. And when subjects were given chocolate it was dark chocolate that is high in cacao. The point is that the evidence for chocolate being healthy was not based on eating more Hershey’s bars!

But given the potential benefits, eating dark chocolate instead of other sweets such as cakes, cookies, and other candy is probably a good idea. Simply eating more chocolate in addition to other sweets will not make you any healthier, and the extra calories could lead to weight gain. Look for chocolate that contains at least 70% cocoa (sometimes listed on the label as cacao or cocoa solids) and remember that a small amount is enough.

Also keep in mind that many fruits contain the same antioxidants as chocolate, so a serving of berries, for example, is a better choice. And finally, achieving good health requires more than simply changing one aspect of what you eat, so include dark chocolate as a part of a diet that includes real food balanced by daily physical activity.