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February 11, 2002


Think You Have To Skip Chocolate This Valentine's Day? Don't Be Heartbroken. Indulging (In Moderation) Can Be GOOD For You

You probably can't avoid being around chocolate on February 14th, even if you try. According to the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, more than 36 million boxes of chocolates will be sold in connection with Valentine's Day this year – so the odds are someone will offer you a piece, or a whole box. Here's good news: according to Emory HeartWise Risk Reduction Program nutritionist Nancy Anderson, R.D., M.P.H., you can indulge in chocolate and still keep your diet resolutions. In fact, chocolate may even offer some health benefits.

"Just because you are eating healthy and watching your weight doesn't mean you have to give up things you love, including chocolate, forever," says Anderson. "Denying yourself a food you love creates a feeling of deprivation and can set you up for bingeing. You can enjoy chocolate as part of a healthy diet – but that means paying attention to controlling how much you eat."

Curiously, chocolate has been associated with matters of the heart for thousands of years. The ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations are believed to be the first people who drank a chocolate drink they connected to romantic powers. While no one has proven indulging in chocolate can actually help your love life, scientists have found that there are substances in some types of chocolate that may be beneficial to a healthy heart.

"Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and bittersweet chocolate have similar properties. They contain a unique kind of saturated fat -- stearic acid -- which doesn't raise blood cholesterol levels," Anderson explains. "Dark chocolate is also a rich source of substances that act as antioxidants and we know anti-oxidants are helpful in combating heart disease and other health problems."

Chocolate also may elevate your mood. "Folklore has long said that's the case and there's some science to back up that claim," Anderson explains. "While chocolate's ability to make you feel good is partly psychological, we now know there are some agents in chocolate that can alter one's sense of well being. Tyramine, serotonin and 2-phenylethamine (PEA, for short) affect neurotransmitters, giving you a lift similar to the feeling of being in love."

Nancy Anderson has several cautions for chocolate lovers, however. For example, be aware that white chocolate is actually not chocolate at all – and it contains none of the possible health benefits of the real thing. "White chocolate is made of fat, sugar and flavorings – it is a high calorie confection not made from cocoa or cocoa beans," Anderson says.

Chocolate also lacks fiber and important vitamins and minerals you get from eating fruits and vegetables. "Another downside of chocolate is that it does contain sugar, fat and calories that will make you fat if you eat too much. You can't simply eat as much as you might like to," says Anderson. "The key to not eating too much chocolate is to understand portion control."

For example, Anderson says to consider having a few chocolate kisses, instead of an entire chocolate candy bar --- one typical chocolate kiss has only 26 calories and one gram of saturated fat.

"You can also get a lot of chocolate flavor from cocoa powder -- which has much less fat and calories than regular chocolate. One ounce of cocoa powder has 58 calories, three grams of fat, and no saturated fat. However, it still contains all the antioxidant properties of chocolate," Anderson says. " Replacing a good portion of some or all of the chocolate in many recipes with cocoa powder is a good way to have the chocolate taste you love – but without adding a lot of extra fat and calories to your diet."

On Valentine's Day, February 14th, Nancy Anderson, R.D., M.P.H., will discuss "Fat or Fiction? Truth and Dietary Fat" at the First Baptist Church of Decatur from 12 noon to 1 p.m. (Health screenings will take place before and after the lecture, from 9:a.m. - 12 noon and from 1:00 - 2:00 p.m. Blood glucose, cholesterol levels and blood pressure testing will be offered atminimal cost.) The lecture is part of the HeartWise Lunch and Learn Lecture series celebrating National Heart Month.

The Emory HeartWise Risk Reduction Program is designed for anyone who has experienced a heart or circulatory event or for anyone who is considered "at risk" for heart disease. Emory Heart Center physicians and other health professionals offer individualized risk assessment followed by a carefully monitored program of exercise, nutrition and education to help lower heart disease risk. To find out more about the Heart Wise program, call 404-778-2850.

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