Thursday, October 15, 2009

Why chocolate isn't on the Spartan Diet

Recent science has discovered healthful properties in cocoa, which has lead media organizations that cover health, fitness and diet to proclaim chocolate as a health food. One of the better articles summarizing the health benefit of chocolate was published on the Huffington Post: "7 Healthy Reasons To Enjoy Chocolate--Without the Guilt!" Those seven reasons are:

1. High in antioxidants

2. Helps with cholesterol

3. Reduces inflammation

4. Lowers blood pressure

5. Helps with mood

6. Improves blood flow

7. It's delicious!

Sounds great! Here's the problem. Nearly all these reasons benefit only those who eat poor diets, or who don't get enough exercise or both.

Conventional medical and health reporting assumes that you're overweight, undernourished and suffer from some level of cardiovascular disease. In fairness, those are pretty safe assumptions when writing for the general American public. Given those assumptions, chocolate can help make up in some small way for your shortfall in antioxidants, and help alleviate your industrial-diet caused high blood pressure, poor circulation, high cholesterol and high inflammation.

However, if you're on the Spartan Diet, you're not going to have any of these problems. The diet gives you all the antioxidants you need with fresh, organic fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and other plant foods. Because small amounts of extra-virgin olive oil is the only concentrated fat, and because the diet is generally as healthful as a diet can be, you won't need chocolate to help you cope with non-existent cardiovascular problems and the like.

Meanwhile, chocolate has many problems advocates gloss over.

First, it's very unlikely that anyone will eat chocolate without sugar. So to recommend chocolate is usually to recommend white table sugar. All "mainstream" chocolate products also contain preservatives and other additives that are less-than-healthy.

Second, chocolate as most people will eat it is a highly refined, highly processed food with many of the touted antioxidants and other nutrients compromised by heat and age. It's not usually a fresh food, but a processed, stored food that's been sitting around for weeks or months.

Third, chocolate is a spectacularly complex food with more than 400 different compounds, some of which are mild drugs. It's both an "upper" (central nervous system stimulant) and a "downer" (narcotic) at the same time.

One of the most appealing things about chocolate for some enthusiasts is improves mood. Chocolate contains bioactive chemicals, such as tryptophan, and is thought to increase the production of dopamine. Although pleasurable, chocolate can also be addictive.

Note that much of the research on the health benefits of chocolate are funded or conducted by giant chocolate companies, who tend to do research on the cocoa bean itself. The products they actually sell do not have all the antioxidant benefits of raw cocoa beans, plus they have additives not referenced in the media reports on their cocoa bean research. 

The healthiest way to eat chocolate is to buy fresh, raw, organic cocoa, and make a chocolate drink with it based on cashew milk sweetened with a small amount of honey. Such a drink is just about as healthy as chocolate gets. But what's the likelihood that you'll take your chocolate like this? Most will grab a chocolate bar, or make hot chocolate with roasted cocoa and milk.

Because all the health benefits of chocolate are already fully present in the Spartan Diet, and because those benefits come in the form of a processed food with addictive bio-active chemicals, sugar and other bad stuff, chocolate does Spartan Dieters more harm than good.

The Spartan Diet is based on a solid list of core principles, including maximum (rather than adequate) health, zero addiction and the avoidance of processed foods and sugar. And that's why chocolate doesn't make the cut.