Let’s face it: Easter is a chocolate holiday. You can run from it or you can embace it. Being the chocolate lover that I am, I chose the latter.
I consider chocolate to be one of life’s great pleasures. I once owned a fridge magnet that read: “Chocolate isn’t only for breakfast.” Indeed, I am quite capable of eating chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner and all the snacks in between! Obviously this is far from ideal. When I began my most recent weight loss attempt, chocolate got banned along with my other favorite snack foods. However, chocolate is making a comeback in my diet in a very interesting way.
When figuring out how to eat, I came to the conclusion that foods need to be divided into 3 categories:
- Total abstinence: These are not really foods at all, they are drugs and they have to go. They are the foods that promote addiction and are toxic when consumed at high doses over a prolonged period of time. Foods that you should just have one of at the very most, but you can’t. Soda, french fries and donuts are at the top of my list. I am sure you have your own.
- Regular inclusion: These, for want of a better word, are “whole foods” or “real foods.” Vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, eggs,dairy and whole grains all make the cut for me. Of course, you might choose to restrict or eliminate certain whole foods because of allergies or intolerance (gluten, nuts, dairy) or dietary preferences (meat, animal products). However, they are still real food with health benefits, they just don’t happen to work for you, but can form a healthy part of a balanced diet for someone else. I would argue that if you decide to restrict one of these real foods, please have a logical, practical and personal reason for doing so. Don’t do it just because it is the current diet fad, or food phobia that someone has inflicted on you!
- Moderation and appreciation: This category is reserved for “the finer things in life.” Whatever it is that having a little of just makes life worth living for you. Foods that are relatively harmless, or even mildly beneficial when consumed in moderation, but where over-consumption is problematic. This is where chocolate fits into my diet.
The secret to moderation in category number 3 is appreciation. You need to be able to have just a little, enjoy it thoroughly and then stop because you have had enough. How does this work in practice? Chocolate is a great example for me. Most commercial chocolate is all about quantity over quality. If you can consume 100 grams of your favorite chocolate without even blinking, you are doing it wrong! If you are going to have chocolate at all, I propose that it should be the finest, most expensive chocolate that money can buy. Chocolate that melts in your mouth, overwhelms you with a burst of complex flavors and leaves you completely satisfied after one or two blocks. To begin with, this means dark chocolate. For me milk and white chocolate have been consigned to category #1 because they are high in sugar and hydrogenated fat. One of the reasons why dark chocolate is often praised for it’s health benefits is that it is consists of 70% (or more) of cacoa and cacoa butter and only 30% sugar. Note that the fat in your chocolate must be real cacoa butter, and not cheap and unhealthy vegetable oil. Sugar should never be the first ingredient as this indicates that the manufacturer has replaced healthy cacao with unhealthy sugar to save on cost. Cacao is considered a “superfood” because of it’s high anti-oxidant and magnesium content, among other things. It also makes you feel good because of certain brain altering compounds that can ease depression or produce euphoria. And therein may lie the problem – too much of a good thing is not such a good thing anymore.
I am of the opinion that any “treat” food should have an inbuilt mechanism to limit consumption. Like my cake experiment. With the cake the limit is imposed by the high fiber content that makes you feel really full and unable to reach for another. I have also discovered that the same can be true for chocolate, although for a different reason. By only eating really good dark chocolate, I naturally only desire an appropriate amount. I am happy to pay whatever it costs for high quality dark chocolate, because I know it isn’t going to suck me in to addictive eating. I can no longer stomach commercial milk chocolate which I find ridiculously sweet and devoid of real chocolate flavor.
Producing high quality, self-limiting treat foods is not in the interests of a food industry that wants to sell a high volume of products. For this you need to seek out artisanal producers who respect the food they are working with and are passionate about quality and taste. Expect to pay handsomely and do so gladly, because you are getting something truly special. My current favorite chocolate in the whole wide world is from DV Chocolates. (I also love Cacoa Bella in San Francisco, but I don’t live there so need to rely on my most awesomest brother to bring me some occasionally.) DV Chocolates is an artisanal producer located in the Cape Winelands. They make 6 varieties of single-origin chocolate and offer tastings and chocolate appreciation workshops. I love the concept of single-origin chocolate because it allows you to approach chocolate tasting as you would wine tasting. Instead of eating large quantities for the sugar rush, you eat just a little for the flavor and see if you can identify the different flavor compounds and learn to distinguish one from the other. DV Chocolates also kindly provides a detailed explanation of the health benefits of chocolate so you can enjoy the experience guilt free 🙂 My husband and I now have a daily ritual where we enjoy one or two blocks of this exquisite chocolate. This serves a two-fold purpose: satisfies our chocolate craving and kills our desire for all other chocolate. Be warned: when you eat really good chocolate, all other chocolate you eat forever after is bound to disappoint. If this means eating just a little healthy chocolate and none of the unhealthy commercial kind then this is a very good thing!
One of the most interesting benefits of chocolate, currently under investigation, is it’s ability to stimulate the same muscle response as vigorous exercise as a result of a compound called epicatechin. See “Chocolate as good for you as exercise.” What is even more exciting than the mouse study referenced in that post is a study done on human patients with advanced heart failure and type 2 diabetes. After 3 months of supplementing with chocolate, the researchers looked at the abundance and volume of cristae, the compartments necessary for the efficient function of mitochondria:
“The cristae had been severely damaged and decreased in quantity in these patients,” said one of the senior investigators, Francisco J. Villarreal, MD, PhD of UC San Diego’s Department of Medicine’s Division of Cardiology. “After three months, we saw recovery — cristae numbers back toward normal levels, and increases in several molecular indicators involved in new mitochondria production.” From Science Daily
This study was sufficiently promising that a larger study on the effects of dark chocolate on the exercise capacity in sedentary individuals is currently underway. Unfortunately I am not one of the lucky participants, so I am conducting my own study at home. Purely in the interests of science, you understand. I will let you know how it turns out!
I have one other way I sometimes like to enjoy chocolate – making it myself. In this panel discussion Michael Pollan suggests that one way to limit overconsumption of foods that should be enjoyed as occasional treats is to make them yourself. The idea is that the effort involved will act as a deterrent against indulging too frequently. His example is french fries, but I find them too easy to make and would cheerfully make them every day, so in my case that is a terrible idea. I do like the principle, however. Chocolate is challenging enough to qualify. I find making my own lots of fun, but a totally exhausting all-day affair so I can only see myself doing it once in a blue moon. An added advantage of making my own is that I can use xylitol instead of sugar as the sweetener. I found organic, raw cacao and cacao butter from Soaring Free Superfoods. I then treated myself to a wonderful recipe book by raw food dessert chef, Heather Pace: Raw Chocolate Dream. (Heather, here’s some free advertising for you: “You must buy it, you must buy it now!”) I replace the agave syrup (which is essentially the same thing as High Fructose Corn Syrup) with a xylitol syrup that I make by melting xylitol in a little water on the stove. I also reduce the amount as I find it too sweet otherwise.
Since it is Easter I thought it was the perfect time to try out my budding chocolatier skills. I did pecan and cranberry squares, puffed amaranth blocks and filled chocolates using the Moonie Mint Pie recipe from “Raw Chocolate Dream.” I currently have a thing for puffed amaranth and I read that it is made into chocolate candy as a traditional treat in South America, so I just had to give that a try! The amaranth blocks were my favorites from my latest chocolate adventure because the crunch inside the chocolate is like a party in your mouth. As you can see, my chocolate bunnies need practice as their minty insides are coming out a bit along the sides. Did I mention that making your own chocolates is incredibly difficult? However, for better or worse, here is my Easter basket:
Whatever the celebrations of your culture and religion, if they involve food, this is meant to be enjoyed heartily with family and friends. We had some good friends over for a wholesome meal involving Jamie Oliver’s mushroom soup, come crusty whole wheat herb bread and loads of delicious fresh veggies. For dessert we brought out some homemade Easter chocolate. Because if you can’t enjoy chocolate for Easter, then what’s the point?