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Dark Chocolate Good for Diabetics?

The millions of diabetics all over the world are probably hoping for a resounding YES to this question! Recent studies showing evidence that cocoa and dark chocolate may have health benefits have been featured in the news, much to the excitement of avid chocolate lovers.

It is proposed that dark chocolate is “healthy” due to its high concentration of polyphenols and flavonoids such as catechins and procyanadins. These substances are also found in green tea and red wine, which were once thought of to be unhealthy but have now gained popularity for their role in decreasing risk for some lifestyle related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

A study by Davide Grassi et al at the University of L’Aquila in Italy compared the effects of adding 100 grams of dark chocolate or 90 grams of white chocolate to the diets of 15 healthy Italians (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, March 2005). Dark chocolate is rich in flavonoids due to its high cocoa content whereas white chocolate, which does not contain cocoa, has no flavonoids. The subjects took dark chocolate for 15 days, then one week of no chocolate, and then white chocolate for another 15 days.

Grassi’s research showed a decrease in both fasting glucose and insulin levels, improved insulin resistance and higher insulin sensitivity after the dark chocolate phase. White chocolate did not produce the same healthy effect. Furthermore, the systolic blood pressure was significantly lower after eating dark chocolate, with no effect after eating white chocolate.

Dr. Makoto Tomaru et al did a study on mice fed with cocoa “liquor” rich in flavonols (Nutrition, April 2007). The blood levels of glucose decreased substantially in the obese diabetic mice that were fed flavonol-supplemented diets. The higher the dose of flavonols, the more effect on lowering of blood sugar. The researchers claimed, “To our knowledge, this is the first study to report that flavonols can prevent aggravation of type 2 diabetes.” They hypothesized that it was the antioxidant effect of flavonols that reduced insulin resistance in mice, thereby lowering their blood glucose levels.¬†Before you get all excited over this “evidence-based” news, there are some things that have to be, pointed out.

First, the study by Grassi et al was conducted on a small group of healthy, non-diabetic subjects. The one by Tomaru showed improvement in diabetics…mice, not men. More research is needed, on a bigger group of human subjects (preferably diabetics) and over a longer period of time, to confirm the findings. It may be too early to recommend that diabetics take dark chocolate daily until more research is conducted.

Second, more dark chocolate equals more calories! To achieve the same effects as in Grassi’s study, you’d have to take 100 grams of dark chocolate for at least 15 days… an additional 460 to 530 calories per day! So in your effort to improve sugar levels and insulin sensitivity, you may end up gaining weight, which may even worsen the diabetes! You will need to cut back on other calories in your diet to make room for your dark chocolate.

Third, the researchers are uncertain of the mechanism of action ofdark chocolate in improving blood pressure and diabetes. Perhaps it’s the effect on nitric oxide (which helps control blood flow), or the high chromium content of cocoa (which affects insulin function), or the high amount of flavonoids (which have antioxidant properties). Thus, we still don’t know if it’s really dark chocolate that’s good for you or any food that contains these beneficial ingredients.

The bottom line is, with the positive research findings above, I am not saying that you should have a smorgasbord of dark chocolate! Diabetics can eat dark chocolate like everyone else… in moderation.

The next time you have a chocolate craving, go for semi-sweet dark chocolate. Avoid chocolate products made with ‘artificial chocolate flavoring’, hydrogenated fats, syrupy fillings (high sugar), and milk chocolate (higher fat). It is still best to consult with your doctor before adding dark chocolate to your’daily regimen. Regular blood sugar and blood pressure monitoring plus lab tests are important to determine how it affects you.

In the end, it still boils down to the triad of health: balanced diet, regular exercise, and lifestyle modifications.

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