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In the spirit of Easter Sunday, the day when most of us will be gorging ourselves on chocolate, nutritionist Michele Chevalley Hedge reveals how this indulgence can be good for you

Easter Sunday – the time of year when we have chocolate eggs and bunnies on our minds and in our tummies, when even hot cross buns now get the chocolate treatment, and egg shapes and shiny wrappers are everywhere you look. The sweet treat is impossible to avoid, but thankfully you don’t have to – if you choose wisely.

Chocolate is often touted as having “health benefits”, but not all varieties are created equal. So how do you separate the naughty from the nice (on the health front, as there’s no disputing it all tastes nice)?

The key is its cocoa content. Dark chocolate contains 50-90 per cent cocoa solids, plus cocoa butter and some sugar. Milk chocolate tends to have a small percentage of cocoa, plus cocoa butter, milk and sugar. Lower-quality chocolate can also contain vegetable oils, and artificial colours and flavours. White chocolate doesn’t contain any cocoa solids and is made from cocoa butter, lots of sugar, and milk.

So where does the goodness come in? Chocolate is made from cocoa, which is processed from the seeds of the cacao tree. Studies reveal that cocoa is one of the best sources of naturally occurring antioxidants called polyphenols, and is particularly rich in flavonoids, which have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Processing cocoa to reduce its natural bitterness can result in the loss of these beneficial properties, which is why darker, less processed chocolate comes out the winner for the health benefits.

HERE’S WHY IT’S OK TO SAY “YES” TO THAT EASTER BUNNY

1 SKIN PROTECTION
The flavonoids in chocolate can protect against sun damage by fighting free radicals, those DNA-damaging molecules that are formed when UV rays penetrate the skin. They can also boost hydration and improve blood flow to the skin. Chocolate’s content of the phenolic compound catechin is four times that of tea, and this antioxidant can absorb UV rays, and protect against oxidative stress, inflammation, and skin cancer.

2 SOURCE OF IRON
An alarming number of Australians are low in iron, which our bodies need for growth and development. Dark chocolate is one of the highest plant-based sources of iron there is, making it especially handy for vegans and vegetarians who miss out on the more readily available sources of haem iron from meat, fish and poultry

3 HEART HEALTH
In clinical trials, consumption of cocoa was shown to increase levels of good (HDL) cholesterol and decrease bad (LDL) cholesterol thanks to its potent antioxidant content. These free-radical fighters make their way into the bloodstream and protect tissue, such as the lining of the arteries.

4 MOOD BOOST
Cocoa contains an amino acid called tryptophan, which is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin – aka “the happy hormone”. Serotonin can help you relax and sleep, reduce feelings of hunger, and elevate your mood.

5 BLOOD PRESSURE STABILISER
The flavonoids in dark chocolate stimulate the lining of our arteries to produce nitric oxide. One of the key functions of this is to send a signal to relax the arteries, which lowers the resistance to blood flow, thus reducing blood pressure.

THE LAST WORD
To get the maximum benefit from chocolate, you should:


• Choose dark chocolate over milk or white chocolate most of the time.
• Choose quality chocolate over quantity.
• Share your chocolate stash.
• Buy in small, portion-controlled blocks.
• Eat your chocolate mindfully and without guilt.

The main thing is to enjoy it, and if you overindulge this Easter, remember that you can’t fail at good nutrition – you just pick it up again the next day.

Michele Chevalley Hedge is a nutritional medicine practitioner, founder of A Healthy View and author of Eat, Drink & Still Shrink.

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