There are currently about 463 million adults with diabetes, and that number is increasing in most countries. Type 2 diabetes is the most common type, making up about 90% of diabetes cases.
Type 2 diabetes is caused by insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone that helps the body use or store blood sugar the body gets from food. For people with type 2 diabetes, the body no longer completely uses the insulin. This causes blood sugar levels to rise, and the body produces more insulin to try to use the sugar, resulting in high blood glucose levels and ultimately diabetes. Unfortunately, people with type 2 diabetes also have a greater risk of heart disease as well as other ailments.
People with type 2 diabetes best manage the disease by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and maintaining a healthy weight. Diets that include healthy carbohydrates, fiber, fish, and good fats help improve the body’s use of insulin.
Sticking to a diet is difficult and can feel like eating is ‘all work and no play’. It is important for people with diabetes to consider ways to splurge while still meeting the goals of their diabetic diet plan.
Nutritionists and people with diabetes are often on the lookout for foods that can be enjoyed as a special treat, but not negatively affect their diabetes. A recent research study published proposed that dark chocolate might be one of those treats, which leaves people with diabetes wondering “is dark chocolate good for diabetics?”
History of chocolate
Chocolate originated in Mexico with the Mayans, Incans, and Aztecs. It was harvested from the cacao tree and only available to the rich. It was introduced to Europe in the 16th century but was too high priced for most.
Cocoa is made from the roasted seeds of the cacao tree. Cocoa liquor is a paste made from the beans that contains cocoa and cocoa butter. When these two ingredients are combined with sugar, chocolate is born.
Types of chocolate
There are different varieties of chocolate. Dark chocolate is made when a high amount of cocoa liquor is used. Dark chocolate is sometimes called semi or bittersweet chocolate, and it contains at least 35% cocoa liquor plus sugar. Milk chocolate results when condensed or powdered milk is an added ingredient. White chocolate is only cocoa butter, sugar, and milk.
Chocolate and health
Although historically chocolate was considered good for one’s health, in recent history it has gotten a bad rap because it is high in fat, associated with cavities, and thought to cause acne, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
However, within the last ten years researchers discovered that chocolate has much potential as an antioxidant. This discovery spurred new research into the potential health benefits of chocolate.
Although it is usually considered a dessert or a treat, it turns out that eating dark chocolate can be beneficial to health. Here are several of the benefits one can reap when eating dark chocolate:
The primary health benefit discovered in chocolate is its antioxidant activity, which comes from the high level of flavonoids. Flavonoids are a type of compound found in plants that give the plant color and protect it from threats.
Chocolate is high in a particular type of flavonoids called flavonols. The chemical structure of flavonols makes them especially good at neutralizing free radicals. Free radicals are responsible for many health problems, but antioxidants such as those found in dark chocolate protect the body from oxidative stress and reactive oxygen species.
Eating chocolate can be a good way to get minerals such as copper, magnesium, potassium, iron, and calcium. These minerals are all important factors in reducing risk for high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries. A serving of dark chocolate supplies 9% of the USDA recommended dietary allowance of magnesium for middle aged men.
While the cocoa bean is high in fiber, most of the dietary fiber in chocolate is removed during processing. Foods that are high in dietary fiber are helpful in maintaining weight. However, dark chocolate contains 1.7 g of dietary fiber, and milk chocolate contains 1.2 g. The fiber in cocoa is mainly insoluble, which has been linked to lowering chances of getting type 2 diabetes.
The types of fats in chocolate are like those in olive oil. One of the main types of fat in chocolate is stearic acid, an unusual fat because it does not act like a typical fat leading to high cholesterol. Stearic acid does not lead to artery hardening like most short chain fatty acids. Stearic acid makes up 33% of the fat content of cocoa butter.
Chocolate and insulin resistance
One study found the risk of having diabetes was reduced by 35% for those who ate chocolate versus those who did not. Researchers continue to discover evidence that people with diabetes can eat chocolate and mend insulin resistance caused by type 2 diabetes.
Studies have shown that chocolate may protect against insulin resistance. More evidence suggests chocolate has an insulin-sensitizing effect on the body. Because it is highest in flavonols, dark chocolate is best for improving insulin resistance.
Dark chocolate has also shown promise in preventing heart disease that is often associated with diabetes. Additional research is needed to determine whether chocolate may repair damage to the pancreas caused by type 2 diabetes.
Alternatives to chocolate
Unfortunately, some people have allergic reactions to chocolate. For chocoholics, this can be devastating news. Luckily, chocolate allergies are rare. In the case of chocolate related allergies, there are some alternatives.
One alternative is diabetic chocolate, which is chocolate including no added sugars. These chocolates are usually sweetened with sugar alcohols, compounds that are chemically like sugar and alcohol. Sugar alcohols have a sweet flavor but are not fully digested by the body. While sugar alcohols do not raise blood glucose levels as much as sugar, they do raise it. Diabetic chocolates containing sugar alcohols should be limited.
Another alternative is carob. Carob pods are the fruit of the carob tree, grown in Mediterranean climates. It has a flavor like cocoa and is sometimes used as a substitute.
Is dark chocolate good for diabetics?
Based on the data available from current research studies to determine the answer to the question “is dark chocolate good for diabetics”, the short answer is yes. While too much of a good thing can be bad, studies suggest that dark chocolate in moderation may have some health benefits. Benefits can range from improving insulin resistance, improving mood, protecting skin from UV light damage, to protecting the brain from neuroinflammation.
Consult a physician before making any dietary changes, and your diabetes care plan might include some dark chocolate.
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