The health benefits of chocolate

Tasty side of health

Chocolate lovers can rejoice at the amazing health benefits derived from cocoa powder.

The silky sensation of chocolate’s smoothness and texture as it touches your tongue and melts in your mouth is part of the alluring appeal of this popular confection.

The average Canadian consumes 7.7 kilograms or just under 17 pounds of chocolate per year.

Cocoa (Theobroma cocoa) are evergreen trees native to Central and South America and middle parts of West Africa. They grow from six to 12 metres in height and have numerous large pods that are 15 to 20 centimetres in length. The pods contain 20 to 60 cocoa beans.

The trees grow best in hot humid tropical climates with increased moisture and shade within 20 degrees north and south of the equator. The countries that produce most of the world’s chocolate include Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Cameroon and Brazil. Worldwide production of cocoa is estimated to be 4.5 million tons per year.

Chocolate is made from cocoa powder derived from the cocoa tree. The pods are cut from the trees and the beans are then extracted from the ripened pods. The beans and slimy pulp are allowed to dry and partially ferment for about a week. Then the beans cracked into smaller fragments called nibs and are ground into a thick paste known as cocoa liquor. The paste is heated and separated into cocoa butter and cocoa solids. Cocoa butter is a concentrated pale, yellow edible fat.

Cocoa solids are a mixture of bitter, dark that remains after the fat is mostly removed. The cocoa solids are then dried and pulverized into a fine powder that we know as cocoa powder. The cocoa powder is then mixed with various amounts of sugar, milk and other fats to make the confection we know as chocolate.

Cocoa powder contains 58% carbohydrates of which 33% is fibre, 20% protein, 14% fat and 3% water. One ounce, or 30 grams, contains 36 milligrams of calcium, 166 milligrams of magnesium, 4 milligrams of iron, 435 milligrams of potassium, 1.9 milligrams of zinc and 1 milligram of copper. It also contains trace amounts of B vitamins and negligible amounts of vitamin B12, vitamin A and vitamin C. Cocoa powder only contains 0.5 grams of sugar per ounce.

Caffeine and a related chemical called theobromine make up 2 to 3 percent of the dried weight of the powder. Cocoa powder contains 65 milligrams of caffeine and 676 milligrams of theobromine per ounce. Theobromine is a central nervous system like caffeine but slightly slower and less potent. It is used medicinally to treat asthma. Theobromine along with caffeine can cause acid reflux and is toxic in large doses to cats and dogs.

Flavonoids are believed to be the main ingredient in cocoa powder that accounts for the health benefits of the plant. The main flavonoids in cocoa powder are the polyphenolic compounds, catechin, epicatechin and procyanidins. Fresh cocoa beans contain three to six percent polyphenols. One ounce or 30 grams of cocoa powder contains up to 3.3% of total polyphenols or 1050 milligrams.

Cocoa flavonoids are antioxidants that prevent oxidative damage in the human body. Preliminary studies show that consumption of these compounds can decrease oxidative damage to the delicate inner lining of arterial blood vessels called the endothelium. This can prevent progression of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries. Also, the stickiness of platelets is reduced after cocoa consumption.

Polyphenols are good for the cardiovascular system. Epicatechin increases nitric oxide which causes blood vessel vasodilation. Along with the high magnesium and potassium content of cocoa powder, this can relax blood vessels and lower blood pressure.

Furthermore, the antioxidant effects of these flavonoids can also be beneficial for neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Some studies show that chocolate consumption can improve memory.

The antioxidants in cocoa powder can also benefit the skin by preventing oxidative damage to skin cells and progression to certain types of skin cancer.

Chocolate consumption can also help to reduce inflammation by decreasing enzyme activity that promotes systemic inflammatory pathways.

Cocoa polyphenols can improve insulin sensitivity and decrease insulin resistance in Type-2 diabetes.

Chocolate can also improve moods and reduce depression. Caffeine, theobromine and the amino acids phenylalanine, tyrosine and tryptophan in cocoa powder can increase dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain.

Most experts agree the optimal “dosage” of chocolate is between 30 to 60 grams per day. The higher the cocoa powder content and the darker the chocolate the better. Seventy percent or higher cocoa content is recommended for optimal health benefits.

The trouble with consuming too much chocolate is excess empty calories from too much refined sugar and fat. Chocolate can also cause acid reflux and heartburn and excessive doses can overstimulate the nervous system and cause insomnia in some sensitive individuals.

The information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute medical advice. All information and content are for general information purposes only.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Health benefits of the Great Depression

Recession depression

It is paradoxical to think of the health benefits of the Great Depression from 1929 to 1939, considering the current economic woes. And yet, there were some interesting positive outcomes.

During the Great Depression, it is interesting to note death rates decreased in almost all categories and age groups throughout the world. Despite hard economic times, life expectancy actually increased in most categories. Average life expectancy in 1929 in North America at the beginning of the Great Depression was 57 years. At the peak of the Great Depression in 1934 in North America, the average life expectancy increased to 63 years. All major causes of death, including cardiovascular disease, lung diseases like flu, pneumonia and tuberculosis, as well as diabetes, cancer and traffic accidents decreased significantly. The only cause of death that increased during the period was suicide, particularly at the beginning of the Great Depression.

It is undeniable many people at the time experienced economic and financial hardship, loss of jobs and livelihoods and didn’t have the money or resources to maintain their standard of living.

Many of the dietary and lifestyle habits of good economic times are counterproductive to good health and welfare. During the depression, many people couldn’t afford to buy alcohol or cigarettes with the same regularity and quantity as before. They couldn’t afford to go to pubs, taverns and other places of “ill repute.” They couldn’t afford to eat out in restaurants and other establishments. They couldn’t afford to buy gasoline and drive automobiles with as much fervour as before.

Many had to curtail the bad habits they had during good economic times that probably contributed to poor health and welfare.

Other social factors also contributed to improved mortality rates. People had to work together and live together. They helped each other out. Instead of focusing on individual gains, friends, family and relatives pitched in together to make ends meet. The individual isolationist environment superseded a better sense of community. Working together and helping each other out was more advantageous than egotistical self-centredness.

Many families became resourceful. They planted gardens, canned foods, baked their own bread. They made their own clothes and recycled many products. They ate less meat and drank less milk, primarily because of the cost. They ate more whole foods and less processed foods. In many cases, they grew their own grains and cereals or bartered with others who did. Buttermilk, macaroni and peanut butter became household staples. Hearty vegetable soup and meat loaf became household delicacies. The motto “use it up, wear it out, make do or do without” was a common creed.

Fast forward to 2024 and things are not quite the same. We are still recovering emerging from the “Great Economic Recession” of 2008. We are recovering from the worldwide COVID pandemic that began in 2020 that also triggered economic stagnation and a brief recession. The economy is still sputtering to maintain its footing.

Instead of the monetary retraction policies that were used during the Great Depression, central banks have used monetary expansion to sustain the economy. As a result, inflation is still rearing its head and putting a drag on economic recovery. Many people are experiencing financial pressures. And yet, unlike the Great Depression, the mortality rates have increased by a staggering average of 10% in most countries in the Western world including Canada and the United States.

Most would erroneously assume the current mortality rates are a direct consequence of the COVID pandemic. There were indeed excess deaths from Covid infections from the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 to the official end of the pandemic in May 2023. However, as the virus mutated during the pandemic, it became just as infectious but certainly less lethal. And yet, we are still left with a high unexplained persistent—although somewhat reduced—level or excess mortality.

Most epidemiological experts believe the post COVID high level of mortality is due to several factors. The majority of excess deaths are due to increased levels of cardiovascular disease. The exact causes are unknown but stress seems to be a major factor and a reluctance to get proper medical care also appears to be an important factor. Many lifestyle factors are also believed to be contributory factors.

The rates of increased alcohol consumption, stress-related dietary patterns and increased levels of cigarette smoking and other related illicit drugs are believed to be accessory causal factors. Clearly there is not a reduction in mortality following an economic downturn. Things are economically bad, but not bad enough to stop supporting our bad habits.

One of the unique abilities of humans is their ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Despite poor economic times people adapted to, and changed, their behaviours.

I still believe in the resilience of human behaviour. This time it may take a little bit longer.

The information provided in this article does not, and is not intended to, constitute medical advice. All information and content are for general information purposes only.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

The health benefits of bananas

Are bananas healthy?

A patient from Langley sent me an email recently asking whether or not bananas were healthy to consume.

A “nutritional expert” told him bananas were bad and he should stop eating them. The patient consumed one banana per day in a green drink that contained a variety of different healthy green foods and protein powder. He had no known reactions to bananas and generally enjoyed eating them.

Like all foods we consume, there is always a possibility of allergy or food intolerance. The actual rate of banana reactions is estimated to be less than 1% and may be connected to a latex sensitivity. Barring that, bananas are considered to be a healthy fruit and nutritious snack.

Bananas are the most popular fruit consumed in the world. More than 100 billion bananas are consumed yearly throughout the world. India, China and other countries in southeast Asia, as well as parts of Africa and Central and South America produce bananas. The average North American consumes approximately 26 pounds per year.

Bananas are technically classified as a berry and an herb. There are more than 50 groups of different bananas and over 1,000 different types. The plantain is considered to be a cooking banana, while the yellow Cavendish variety most commonly consumed from the supermarket is considered to be a dessert banana.

A cluster of bananas is called a “hand” and a single banana is called a “finger.” An average banana is 75% water. A banana usually floats in water owing to its low density. One medium banana contains about 11 milligrams of tryptophan, which is used to make the mood elevating hormone serotonin. Bananas also contains trace amounts of vitamin B6, vitamin C, manganese, melatonin, other antioxidants and phytonutrients.

One medium-sized banana weighs about 100 grams. The nutritional content of one banana translates to 90 calories, 1.1 gram of protein, 0.3 grams of fat and 23 grams of carbohydrates. It also includes 2.6 grams of fibre, 12 grams of sugars and no cholesterol. It is a myth perpetuated by some in the nutritional industry that bananas are extremely high in potassium. They contain average amounts of potassium compared to other fruits and vegetables. An average banana contains about 450 milligrams or potassium.

Other foods higher in potassium include 840 milligrams in one cup of cooked spinach, 710 milligrams in one avocado, 610 milligrams in one potato with its skin still on, 550 milligrams in one cup of plain yogurt, 520 milligrams in one beet, 510 milligrams in one cup of cooked Brussel sprouts and 460 milligrams in one cup of cooked broccoli. A medium sized banana also contains 27 milligrams of magnesium, 22 milligrams of phosphorus, five milligrams of calcium, 0.26 milligrams of iron and 0.15 milligrams of zinc.

Some people claim bananas are very high in sugar. Others claim bananas can make you fat. Neither is true. Up to 16% of the weight of a banana is made up of sugars. One medium sized banana contains about 23 grams of carbohydrates mainly as starch and simple sugars. It includes 12 grams of simple sugars as glucose, fructose and sucrose. Bananas have a moderate glycemic index between 42 to 58 making them suitable for consumption by diabetics in moderation. The sucrose content in an unripe banana was measured to be about one gram. In a ripe banana the sugar content increases to 2.5 grams but decreases back to about 1 gram when it is overripe. In the ripening process some of the starch gets converted to glucose increasing the sugar content of this fruit. Also, as one banana contains less than 100 calories and less than one gram of fat, they do not make you fat. Bananas are a healthy snack and are included in the main course in many tropical countries.

Bananas share about 50% of the same DNA as humans. While there are many different species the monoculture of the common yellow Cavendish banana has limited its genetic diversity. This has made this banana species very susceptible to fungal, bacterial and viral infections. The Gros Michel species was considered to be creamier and tastier than the Cavendish banana, but the species was rendered to extinction in the 19th century by a fungal infection called Panama disease.

Bananas are a wonderful addition to a healthy diet for most people. They can help you lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and strokes, improve insulin sensitivity in Type 2 diabetics, aid in weight loss, satisfy a craving for sugar, decrease heartburn and stomach problems, aid in proper bowel function and relieve constipation, support a healthy intestinal microflora, provide electrolytes and energy for athletic recovery and anecdotal reports suggest that the inner banana peel may treat warts on the skin.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.


Dealing with osteoporosis as we age

Maintaining bone health

Osteoporosis literally means “porous bones” and results from decreased bone density.

Bones affected with demineralization are prone to fractures with minimal stress. The exact cause of primary osteoporosis is not known but is believed to be due to a complex interplay of different factors, including genetics, nutritional deficiencies, hormone imbalances and lifestyle factors.

Secondary osteoporosis is due to some underlying medical condition.

The signs and symptoms of osteoporosis include insidious onset, no early warning signs, bone and muscle pain, characteristic humpback, bone fractures, vertebral compression or crush fractures and fractures of the wrist.

There are 216 bones in the human body. Bones are meant to support, protect and maintain the shape of the body. They are a major reservoir for the mineral calcium and up to 99% of calcium in the human body is stored in bones. The two types of bone are “dense” and “spongy.”

Bones are in a constant state of remodelling and are broken down and built back up. Peak bone strength occurs between the ages of 30 to 35. The hormones estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and growth hormone prevent bone breakdown.

Factors related to the development of osteoporosis include advancing age, fair skin, being female, early menopause, a lack of children, smoking, alcohol abuse, a slender build, physical inactivity, family history, poor digestion, malabsorption, poor nutrition and low calcium intake.

The diagnosis of osteoporosis is primarily based on bone density testing. Physical examination and measuring height are good indicators of vertebral bone loss. A loss of more than five centimetres from previous peak height, without a coexisting medical condition, usually indicates significant bone loss. A loss of height of between 2.5 to five centimetres indicates some degree of bone loss.

Lab testing, including calcium levels, bone enzymes and hormones may offer some insight into bone dynamics. Additional testing, including urinary bone markers and mineral assessment can be insightful.

Secondary causes of osteoporosis include osteomalacia, hyperparathyroidism, hyperthyroidism, multiple myeloma, high blood calcium levels, Cushing’s disease, chronic corticosteroid use, alcoholism, metastatic cancer, anorexia nervosa, high blood prolactin and biliary cirrhosis.

Osteoporosis is a chronic progressive deterioration of bone density. Peak bone mass occurs for both males and females between the ages of 30 and 35 years. After age 40 years bone decreases by about 1% per year. Basic x-rays can reveal bone loss when bone mineralization decreases by 30 to 40%. After 50% bone loss there is significantly increased risk of bone fractures.

Hormone therapy for osteoporosis, primarily as estrogen, can decrease bone loss by up to 50%. Progesterone also increases bone density. However, the increased risk of promoting breast and uterine cancer has decreased the use of hormone therapy for treating osteoporosis. Calcitonin is a hormone that increase calcium uptake into bones.

Lifestyle factors are vital for preventing and treating osteoporosis. Starting a daily exercise routine is important including at least 20 minutes of aerobic exercise and light to moderate weight bearing exercises. Brisk walking, hiking, dancing, climbing stairs and racquet sports are beneficial aerobic exercises. Strength training with light to moderate weight resistance can help to prevent bone loss. Quitting smoking, drinking only in moderation and getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night are all helpful.

Dietary factors can help prevent the development of osteoporosis. Decreasing consumption of animal protein can decrease phosphate levels which can prevent calcium leaching from bones. Acidic foods such as excess sugar and refined carbohydrates can also promote bone loss. Decreasing alcohol consumption may be beneficial. Limiting coffee and caffeine consumption to less than three cups per day can prevent bone loss. Consuming foods high in calcium such as dairy products and dark green leafy vegetables can promote positive calcium balance. A diet rich in whole grains and cereals, vegetables and fruits are also rich in tract minerals that are good for bone health.

The adult female human body contains about 1,200 grams of calcium and the adult human male body contains about 1,400 grams. The recommended dietary allowance of calcium for an adult female is between 1,000 and 1500 milligrams per day and between 1000 and 1300 milligrams per day for adult males. One glass of milk contains about 300 milligrams of calcium, one cup of whole almonds contains 350 milligrams of calcium and one cup of cooked spinach contains 260 milligrams of calcium.

Vitamin and minerals are also important for bone health, including different vitamin Bs, folic acid, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin K, boron, copper, magnesium, manganese, silicon, strontium and zinc. Vitamin D is important for increasing calcium absorption from the digestive system, preventing calcium loss from the kidneys and increasing calcium uptake into bones.

Vitamin K acts as an important cofactor in calcium deposition in the bone matrix. Vitamin K increases a small protein called osteocalcin in cells called osteoblasts in bones that help to stimulate bone growth and modelling.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More The Okanagan Naturopath articles

About the Author

Doug Lobay is a practicing naturopathic physician in Kelowna, British Columbia.

He graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the University of British Columbia in 1987 and then attended Bastyr College of Natural Health Sciences in Seattle, Washington, where graduated with a doctorate in naturopathic medicine degree in 1991. While attending Bastyr College, he began to research the scientific basis of naturopathic medicine. 

He was surprised to find many of the current major medical journals abounded with scientific information on the use of diet, vitamins, nutritional supplements and herbal medicines.

Doug is a member of the College of Naturopathic Physicians of British Columbia and has practiced as naturopathic family physician for more than 30 years.  He maintains a busy practice in Kelowna where he sees a wide age range of patients with various ailments.

He focuses on dietary modification, allergy testing, nutritional assessments, supplement recommendation for optimal health, various physical therapy modalities, various intravenous therapies including chelation therapy.

An avid writer, he has written seven books on various aspects of naturopathic medicine that are available on Amazon and was also a long-time medical contributor to the Townsend Letter journal for doctors and patients, where many of his articles are available to view on-line. He has also given numerous lectures, talks and has taught various courses on natural medicine.

Doug enjoys research, writing and teaching others about the virtues of natural health and good nutrition. When not working, he enjoys cycling, hiking, hockey, skiing, swimming, tennis and playing guitar.

If you have any further questions or comments, you can contact Dr. Lobay at 250-860-7622 or [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

Previous Stories