Most women know there’s one thing they can always count on to lift their spirits, satisfy a craving, and make them feel good all over—and that’s chocolate. Whether you like yours dark, rich, and full of body, or mild, milky, and sweet, chocolate seems to always be around for the taking.
For many, the high fat and high calorie load of chocolate may lead you to forego this guilty pleasure altogether, or at least think twice before taking a bite. The good news is that although chocolate does contain saturated fat, the kind of fat known to clog arteries and raise “bad” LDL cholesterol, about 1/3 of it—stearic acid—is not the kind that raises LDL; in fact, the body converts stearic acid into a healthful monounsaturated fat called oleic acid.
Chocolate is energy dense and packs in a lot of calories in relatively small portions. There are, however, some types and forms of chocolate (like dark chocolate) that contain health-promoting substances such as flavonoids. These polyphenols (also found naturally in fruits and vegetables, as well as in red wine and tea) protect body cells from damage caused by substances that naturally form in the body or are derived from smoke and other environmental contaminants.
As a lover of chocolate myself, I would never tell anyone to forego chocolate if it’s something they really love, enjoy, and want to include in an otherwise healthful, nutrient-rich diet (unless of course they have a medical or other reason to avoid the sweet treat). But you may find it helpful to follow 5 of my top tips to help you have your chocolate and eat it too without sabotaging your healthful eating and weight-management efforts:
1. Pick your passion—or your poison—wisely. While most commercial processed chocolate—even dark chocolate—may have lost appreciable amounts of beneficial flavonoids while being created, dark chocolate tends to retain more of them than milk chocolate. But if, like me, you really don’t like dark chocolate, and you love milk chocolate, choose that as your treat so you’ll truly feel satisfied. Otherwise, you’ll just be wasting valuable calories that could have been spent on something else.
2. Pay attention to portions. When you buy chocolate, opt for the kinds that come in smaller portions (like single size kisses, nuggets, or mini bars, for example). Buying chocolates that can be enjoyed in several small portions can make you feel like you’re having more since you’ll have to take time unwrapping each one and you can spread them out over the course of a day or week.
3. Count the calories. Most women who need between 1,600 and 2,000 calories a day can’t afford more than about 150 to 250 extra or “discretionary calories” each day. According to the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “discretionary calories” are those that come from sources of added sugars and fats (wine, beer, butter, sour cream, and other fats also count as extra calories). To play it safe, cap your chocolate fix at no more than 100 or 150 calories a day to allow room for extra fats or sugars or extra calories that come from the basic food categories without exceeding your daily calorie budget.
4. Savor the flavor slowly and mindfully. Never grab chocolate on the go—plan for it, and have it at the time of day when you most want it (I like mine right after a workout, late morning..go figure!). Eat it slowly, and really focus on it to maximize enjoyment.
5. Pair chocolate with another healthful food. Melt some chips on a whole-wheat pretzel stick, dipped in chopped nuts like almonds or walnuts, or mix chocolate chips with 1-2 tablespoons each of nuts, unsweetened dried fruit, or whole grain cereal. Or skip the candy altogether and instead have some 1% or skim chocolate milk. Sneaking in a small amounts of chocolate with other healthful foods from the key food groups (fruit, whole grains, and milk) can help you meet your quota for those foods while still getting a little of something sweet.