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Nutritionist Michael Levine once said, “Chemically speaking, chocolate really is the world's perfect food.” This is good news to chocolate lovers, including those of us with hypothyroidism. You might be surprised to learn that one type of chocolate – dark chocolate has health benefits, even for your thyroid! In this article, we will explore the benefits of dark chocolate for general health, and specifically for hypothyroidism and thyroid health, along with some ideas for incorporating this delicious and nutritious superfood into your diet.
Chocolate may be seen as an indulgent treat today, but it hasn’t always been viewed that way. People have been consuming foods and drinks made from cocoa beans since at least 460 AD, and probably even before then. Historically, cacao and chocolate were used by cultures across the globe as a form of medication, most commonly to improve brain function and digestion.
Cocoa or cacao is the dried and fermented seed of the fruit of the cocoa tree. It contains vitamins, minerals, fiber, and molecules called polyphenols (4,5). Cocoa becomes cacao nibs when ground, roasted, and shelled.
Chocolate is made by combining nibs and sugar. The proportion of cocoa in chocolate determines how dark the chocolate will be. The darker the chocolate is, the less sugar, and more of its original content is preserved.
The oil in cacao is referred to as cocoa butter. It contains a mixture of good and bad fats (6). Cocoa butter is used to make chocolate and as an ingredient in cosmetics and body care products.
You may love your Hershey’s Kisses or Milky Way bars, but they are milk chocolate, not dark chocolate. What’s the difference between milk chocolate and dark chocolate?
Cacao concentration: Many of the health benefits of chocolate come from the cacao. Dark chocolate contains a higher concentration of cacao, typically between 55% and 90%, whereas milk chocolate contains between 10% and 50% cacao.
Milk content: Milk chocolate contains some form of milk, a common allergen and food sensitivity. Dark chocolate is almost always non-dairy. Instead, dark chocolate contains cocoa butter, a fat derived from the cocoa bean, which helps make it smooth and rich. This means that dark chocolate is a better option for people with allergy or sensitivity to dairy products, or lactose intolerance.
Sugar content: Milk chocolate has more sugar than dark chocolate, which gives it a creamier, sweeter profile. Dark chocolate is slightly more bitter but deep and complex. A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa contains from 17 to 24 grams of sugar, compared to milk chocolate, which has 29 to 52 grams of sugar. The sugar content also makes dark chocolate generally lower in calories than milk chocolate.
Texture and taste: Typically, milk chocolate has a creamier, softer texture than dark chocolate, due to the milk. Dark chocolate is typically more bitter than sweet-tasting milk chocolate.
Health benefits: Dark chocolate is generally considered to be healthier than milk chocolate because it contains less sugar and more antioxidant-rich cacao. Dark chocolate has been shown to have positive effects on heart health, blood sugar control, and brain function.
Dark chocolate is rich in minerals and antioxidants, making it a nutritious treat when consumed in moderation. Here are some health benefits of dark chocolate:
Rich in minerals: The cocoa bean is rich in minerals—including magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc – which help keep your heart and blood vessels healthy.
- A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa contains 57-230 mg of magnesium.
- A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa containing 11-66% of the daily value for iron
- A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa contains 3.34 mg of zinc.
- A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa contains 196% of the daily value for copper.
Higher fiber content: The bran of the cocoa bean is high in fiber, and research has shown that this fiber can improve cholesterol levels. A 100-gram bar of milk chocolate contains very little fiber, with only 0.1-0.9 grams of fiber. In comparison:
- A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 60-69% cocoa solids contains 8 grams of fiber.
- A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa solids contains even more fiber, with 10.9 grams of fiber.
- A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa solids made from 70-85% cocoa contains 11 grams of fiber.
Higher flavonoid content: The cocoa bean is rich in different antioxidants, collectively known as polyphenols. The most well-known polyphenols are flavonoids. Flavonoids are a type of polyphenols that are associated with many health benefits, including:
- Antioxidant properties, to help neutralize free radicals
- Anti-inflammatory properties, including brain inflammation
- Reduce the risk for heart disease
- Help prevent diabetes by improving how your body uses glucose (sugar) and digests carbohydrates
- Anti-cancer properties
Higher in protein: A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa contains 7.87 g of protein, almost as much as an egg.
Some of the research into the health benefits of dark chocolate include the following:
Improved insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control: Research has shown that moderate consumption of dark chocolate (less than 100g per day) significantly improves insulin sensitivity and sugar metabolism, lowers bad cholesterol, and helps normalize blood pressure.
Blood sugar control: Dark chocolate has a low glycemic index, which means it does not cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels. This makes it a better choice for people with diabetes or those who are trying to control their blood sugar levels.
Reduced inflammation: Many of the molecules in your body that cause inflammation are reduced in number when eating dark chocolate or cocoa—this can help with Hashimoto’s flare-ups (5, 16).
Improved cognition: Dark chocolate can also reduce brain fog and help with improving long-term memory and focus.
One question you may have is whether eating dark chocolate will cause weight gain. Eating smaller amounts of dark chocolate or cocoa – such as 20g or less per day – should not lead to an increase in weight. Some research has shown that consuming cocoa can actually reduce fat, while the smell of chocolate can suppress hunger (5, 20).
Dark chocolate is considered beneficial for individuals with hypothyroidism and other thyroid diseases due to its rich content of antioxidants and essential minerals. In addition to the general health benefits, here are some specific benefits of dark chocolate consumption for people with hypothyroidism.
- The high antioxidant content helps prevent and treat cellular damage caused by free radicals in the body as a result of toxins and stress. Specifically, antioxidants help protect the thyroid from damage. Antioxidants also are beneficial for people with Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune condition that causes hypothyroidism, as they can help reduce inflammation and potentially alleviate symptoms.
- The essential minerals in dark chocolate – including magnesium, copper, selenium, and zinc – are important for thyroid hormone production and thyroid gland regulation.
- Dark chocolate is a good source of iron, which is important for thyroid hormone production. Iron deficiency can lead to an underactive thyroid, so it is important to consume enough iron in the diet.
- Dark chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine, which can improve mood and energy levels. People with hypothyroidism often experience fatigue and depression, so consuming dark chocolate can help to improve these symptoms.
Different types of dark chocolate have different amounts of active nutrients, due to differences in cocoa bean processing during roasting and fermentation. Labels will not typically state the amount of flavonoids in their product, but you can start by choosing unprocessed dark chocolate. Also, keep in mind that the higher the cocoa content, the higher the flavonoid content in dark chocolate. Dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa solids will have the most flavonoids. You can also read the label to find out what type of processes were used to make the chocolate. If you read “treated with alkali” or “dutching process,” that is an indicator that your chocolate is not as rich in flavonoids as it could be.
Dark chocolate can be incorporated into your diet in a variety of healthy ways. Here are some tips for adding dark chocolate to your diet:
- Eat it mindfully and slowly will give you the most satisfaction.
- Pair it with dried fruit, nuts, sea salt, or fresh berries for a sweeter taste
- Add to smoothies
- Use small pieces as a topping for oatmeal, yogurt, or chia pudding
Remember to consume it in moderation and choose high-quality dark chocolate with at least 70% cacao for maximum health benefits.
A note about the Paleo and Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diets
Many Paloma clients follow a Paleo or Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet, but dark chocolate is not typically included in these diets. One of the key reasons is the phytic acid in cacao beans. Phytic acid can impair the body's absorption of minerals like iron, zinc, and calcium by binding to them in the gastrointestinal tract.
That said, the effects of phytic acid are blunted by the heating of the cacao beans to produce chocolate. Also, a high intake of dark chocolate and a nutritionally poor diet are both necessary to reach levels of phytic acid intake that could impair nutrient absorption.
Still, it makes sense to avoid dark chocolate during the most restrictive early phase of an AIP diet, but reintroduce small amounts in moderation later in the process. You may find that a small amount of dark chocolate has benefits – and few downsides – in your diet.
Chocolate is made to be enjoyed and eating it in moderation may help you feel even better! If you are looking for a way to incorporate thyroid-friendly foods like dark chocolate into your diet, consider a virtual consultation with one of our thyroid-savvy nutritionists. And, if you're a hypothyroid patient looking for personalized and convenient medical care, Paloma Health's practitioners are a great choice. As a Paloma member, you can have expert, personalized guidance and support for your hypothyroidism right from the comfort of your own home.
Vedrana Högqvist Tabor, Ph.D., contributed to this article.