Wouldn’t it be great if all the food that tasted good was actually good for you?
It’s fun to fantasize about living in a world where doctors everywhere recommend a diet of cheesecake and pizza, but for the most part, that’s all it is – a fun little daydream. However, recent health studies are starting to uncover a few exceptions.
One in particular has to do with a treat that most of us have spent our lives avoiding because of its negative effects on our waistline. But by doing so, we’ve been missing out on all its brain-boosting power.
It might sound too good to be true, but eating chocolate can have seemingly...
Magical Effects On Your Brain’s Health
More than 40 years ago, researcher Merill Elias began the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study1 in an attempt to determine the link between blood pressure and brain performance. He monitored factors like obesity, smoking, and other cardiovascular risks, but it wasn’t until late in the study that he considered asking participants about their diets. When he did, he made a surprising discovery.
"We found that people who eat chocolate at least once a week tend to perform better cognitively," Elias told the Washington Post.2 "It's significant—it touches a number of cognitive domains." Specifically, it improves short-term memory, reasoning, and the ability to record information about our environment.
Improves Short-Term Memory
And Halts Brain Deterioration
While some know dark chocolate best for its fat-burning benefits, few realize that incorporating it into your diet can have positive effects on brain function as well.
A recent study3 conducted at Harvard Medical School took 90 people aged 61-85 and randomly assigned each a beverage containing varying levels of flavanol. Participants drank either 48 mg (low), 520 mg (intermediate), or 993 mg (high) of the antioxidant over an 8-week span before returning to the lab for neuropsychological testing.
At the study’s conclusion, researchers discovered that those in the “intermediate” and “high” groups performed much better on mental assessments than the ones in the “low” group.
Scientists say these findings indicate that adding flavanol-packed cocoa to our diets could very well slow the effects of cognitive decline.
Increases Cerebral Blood Flow
As it turns out, some scientists believe chocolate to be a powerful ally in the fight against dementia and brain trauma following stroke.
In Macdonald, a researcher from the University of Nottingham, observed study participants as they consumed a cocoa drink in flavonols. With the help of an magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), he found those who finished just one drink enjoyed 2 to 3 hours of improved blood flow afterward. He said:
“The demonstration of an effect of consuming this particular beverage on cerebral blood flow raises the possibility that certain food ingredients may be beneficial in increasing brain blood flow and enhancing brain function, in situations where individuals are cognitively impaired such as fatigue, sleep deprivation, or possibly ageing.”
While the drink Macdonald used in the study4 isn’t available commercially, flavonols found in chocolate are. To reap maximum benefits, opt for dark chocolate over the milk variety. You’ll find a higher concentration of the brain-enhancing chemicals there.
Perform Better Mentally Under Stress
Can chocolate make you better at performing mental tasks on the spot? “Yes,” found a study5 conducted at Northumbria University.
In it, 30 men and women aged 18 to 35 were instructed to count backwards by three from a random number generated by a computer. Researchers found that those who had been given a chocolate drink rich in flavonols had an easier time doing the calculations mentally.
“For things that are difficult to do, mentally demanding things that maybe crop up in your work it could help," said David Kennedy, study coauthor and director of brain, performance and nutrition research centre at the university.
He also mentioned that participants felt less mentally drained after consuming the drink containing 500 mg of flavanol, but notes that such a high concentration of phytochemicals isn’t easily added to our diets:
“The amount that you are giving is more than in the diet,” he said, “but there is quite a lot of evidence that general amounts are protective against declining function and that kind of thing.”
You can find some candy bars containing 100mg of flavanol, but it’s not recommended you binge on five every time you have to do something mentally challenging.
Take A Bite Out Of Cognitive Decline
According to Heidi Godman, executive editor of the Harvard Health Blog, the best way to get the most benefits from cocoa is to consume it in unprocessed, powder form.6 But be aware, not all powders are created equal. Some will have much higher levels of flavanol than others.
If you’d rather go the more delicious and practical route by picking up a chocolate bar at the corner store, aim for one that’s more than 70% cacao, and eat 1-2 small squares per day.