Chocolate: Trick or Treat?

Greg Salgueiro, MS, RD, LDN, CIC

October is known for Halloween and excited children dressed in costumes walking through the neighborhood to gather as much sugar -- I mean candy -- as they can fit in plastic pumpkins. As adults, none of us wants to be that person who hands out healthy treats like fruit, air popped popcorn, or worse: tooth brushes.

Perhaps you’ve seen information about the possible health benefits of chocolate and figure this is the year to give out full-size chocolate bars! A quick web search will reveal several possible benefits of chocolate. You can find information that claims chocolate lowers cholesterol, reduces overall cardiovascular risk, prevents cognitive decline, and even lowers inflammation in the body.

As a dietitian, I’ve been known to encourage a more plant-based diet. Since chocolate is derived from the cocoa bean, maybe there’s some validity to these health claims. In fact, research has shown that cocoa beans contain phytonutrients known as flavanols, which have been proven to benefit your overall health and well-being.

However, I’m also a fan of minimally processed foods. Unfortunately, this is where most of the chocolate we enjoy loses its hope for being labeled “healthy.” On average, Americans consume about 10 pounds of chocolate each year. Most of that comes in the form of candy bars, which contain more sugar, fat, and milk than cocoa beans.

If there are any health benefits to chocolate, they’d be found in less processed, high-quality dark chocolate. But I’m still not ready to label dark chocolate as a health food. Dark chocolate should be in the “occasional” snack category, as consuming about one ounce per day may provide some benefits. Although I hate to deliver more bad news, more is not better.

When it comes to Halloween, what’s a responsible, health conscious adult to offer those eager little goblins?

  • Look for dark chocolate candy bars packaged in smaller sizes.
  • Find dark-chocolate-covered nuts or fruits. Remember to label them for those with allergies.

To help prevent children from feeling sick after indulging in a year’s worth of chocolate:

  • Help your kids sort through their goodies when they get home. Try to eliminate the items that they don’t really like and just keep their favorites. Hopefully, these include some healthier options.
  • Put the disliked candy in the trash or donate to a food bank. Put the favorites in a bowl or container that you can store out of sight.
  • Let them choose a couple of their top choices on Halloween night. Afterwards, assure them that the rest will be there and available each day for an occasional, small indulgence.
  • Have them wash the sugar off their teeth with a drink of water and a good tooth brushing before heading off to bed.

For everyone else who enjoys a little chocolate, eat it mindfully! Enjoy the smell, the way it feels and melts in your mouth, and the taste. Take your time and truly enjoy it. You’ll be amazed at how satisfying a small piece of dark chocolate can be when you intentionally savor it.

We tend to overindulge in foods we consider “bad” or “forbidden.” By enjoying these dark chocolate items available in small, tasty quantities, most people will find that they rarely overindulge. In fact, they may even forget about them in a couple days!

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