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"Let Food Be Thy Medicine"
February 2016 
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Jean Varney
Jeannie Varney
 Nutrition Consultant


It seems only fitting that chocolate is the focus of my article this month. According to Nielsen, Americans consume approximately 3 billion pounds of the sweet stuff annually and purchase 58 million pounds of it in the days leading up to Valentine's Day. Most of us love chocolate and many of us crave it, making the sensationalized media headlines that proclaim chocolate's potential health benefits irresistible.  Finally a healthy habit we can embrace.  Chocolate seemingly can ward off heart disease, stroke and even cognitive decline - chronic ailments of great concern to all of us. But does research support these claims and if so, how much and what kind of chocolate is best?  While the news isn't all bad, you need to choose your source of cocoa carefully. And, if you're eating chocolate for its health benefits, well, you may want to reconsider.

Guilty Pleasure or Healthy Habit
The health benefits of chocolate come from flavanols, powerful plant-based   antioxidants, found in cocoa solids, the non-fat part of the cocoa bean. Research suggests, that when consumed in large quantities, cocoa flavanols can increase arterial blood flow and improve blood vessel function possibly decreasing your risk for cardiovascular disease and dementia. However, just because cocoa can be healthy, doesn't mean a cup of hot chocolate or a high calorie chocolate bar is good for you. The amount of antioxidants in chocolate products varies considerably depending on how the bean is processed and what else is added to the decadent treat.

In 2013, the European Food Safety Authority (the European Union's equivalent of the FDA) determined we needed to eat at least 200mg of cocoa flavanols daily to realize any health benefits, although to date participants in most studies that had positive health outcomes, consumed on average twice this amount.  To put this in perspective, a Hershey's classic 1.5oz chocolate bar contains just 25mg and, I might add, 230 calories. Ouch! Needless to say, getting the minimum 200mg of flavanols a day from your favorite chocolate treat will, no doubt, wreak havoc on your waistline unless you choose wisely.  To see just how many calories it will cost you, consider this. 

To Get 200mg of Flavanols From Non-Alkalinized* Chocolate You Need to Consume:
Type of Chocolate
What it will cost you in calories
Unsweetened Cocoa Powder*1.75 Tbs.
20 Calories
Baking Chocolate* (100% cacao - no added sweetener)
.5 ounces
70 calories
Semi-Sweet Chips*
1.5 ounces
200 calories
Dark* (70-87% cacao)
2.0 ounces
290 - 320 calories
Chocolate Syrup*
1 cup
840 calories
Milk Chocolate*
10.5 ounces
1580 calories
White Chocolate - It contains no flavanols.  It's mostly sugar, cocoa butter (fat) milk solids, and flavorings - avoid it altogether.
Source: J. Agric. Food chem. 57:9169, 2009

*It's important to understand, the level of flavanols in chocolate products is heavily dependent on the method used to process the beans, dark chocolate and cocoa powders included.  If a package says "processed with alkali or Dutch or European processed" most of the flavanols have been stripped out.  Put it back and choose a brand that states non-alkalinized or naturally processed! If you can't find this information on the package, check FAQ on the company's website.

The Bittersweet Truth: Most chocolate is a guilty pleasure.
Yes, it's true, large, daily consumption of cocoa flavonoids - at least 200mg but most likely 400mg from beans naturally processed, have beneficial effects on brain function and heart disease risks. Unfortunately, consuming the amount of chocolate products needed to see these benefits is not healthy and will cause weight gain -a small detail most headlines omit. 

What to do:

If you'd like to enjoy chocolate this Valentine's Day, go ahead and do so, in moderation    and guilt-free.  But thereafter, if you want to take advantage of cocoa's health benefits, it's best to get your flavanols from unsweetened cocoa powder that has been naturally processed.  CocoVia, sold in individual packets that each contains 375mg of heart healthy flavanols, can be purchased on, click here.

Still want to enjoy your dark chocolate after dinner a couple times a week, choose a bar with a cocoa content of at least 70% or greater that is naturally processed - here are a few options:  Alter EcoPascha or Divine.

My favorite way to incorporate cocoa powder into my diet is for breakfast but if you prefer it for dessert that's an option too:

Simply mix 1 -2 teaspoons of unsweetened cocoa powder with a ½ cup of frozen blueberries that has been thawed in the microwave for 30 seconds.  Pour this over your steel cut oats or plain, Greek yogurt and top off with pumpkin, sunflower or flaxseeds and/or nuts of choice.

Need a dessert?  Blend together a small frozen banana, 1-2 tsp. of cocoa powder, ¼ of an avocado and a generous dash of milk or unsweetened milk alternative.  No need for Ben and Jerry's, I promise.


This article is for informational purposes only, is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, and is not a substitute for medical advice.

Food Focus - Walnuts
If I believed in superfoods, I'd include walnuts on the list.  Like most nuts, they're wonderful for our health.  It's no coincidence that they look like our brain - they're loaded with Vit. E, folic acid and plant-based omega 3s, nutrients that are known to keep our minds sharp and our risk for mental disorders like depression and dementia at bay. And if that's not enough to convince you to throw a handful on your salad each night, walnuts also can help lower your bad cholesterol (LDL).  Just 7 whole walnuts a day (roughly 1.5oz) is all you need to improve mental function and positively affect cholesterol making them a no-brainer when needing a snack. My favorite ways to enjoy these tree nuts is right out of the bag or on top of my oatmeal but also try them sprinkled over your sautéed greens or toasted and mixed with goat cheese and pomegranate seeds in your salad. 

Try this kale and pesto recipe from Love and Lemons.

Keep a batch in your refrigerator.  When time is scarce, place a dollop on top of your baked fish or mix a little in with your hardboiled eggs or canned tuna for a quick and healthy meal.
Recipes of the Month

Chocolate Almond Strawberries & Quinoa


Chocolate Butternut Squash Lasagna


Chocolate-Covered Banana Almond Butter Bites


Chocolate Covered Blueberry Greek Yogurt


Banana Chocolate Chip Power Muffins


Chocolate Avocado Pudding


About Jean Varney 
Jean Varney is the founder and president of Eat Right, Be Fit, Live Well LLC, a health and nutrition consulting firm committed to empowering men and women to improve their health through sustainable changes to their diet and lifestyle.  Based in the Washington DC metropolitan area, Jean coaches clients nationwide by phone and in person.  She focuses on helping individuals make smart choices about the foods they eat in order to maintain high energy levels, avoid unwanted weight gain and decrease their risk of heart disease, cancer, type II diabetes and other chronic illnesses.  Jean received her training at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City.  To learn more about her practice, please visit her website at: