The holiday season is upon us — a time of celebration, family, and, of course, indulgent desserts.
For those of us with a sweet tooth, new science could help allay our guilt about gorging on the king of dessert ingredients – chocolate. Recent research has linked chocolate to significantly improved mental function.
How did researchers stumble across this tasty piece of information? It took years. Data was generated by the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study, which has been tracking lifestyle factors and health outcomes of nearly 1,000 people for decades. Between 2001 and 2006, researchers gathered detailed information about the subjects’ diets. This data allowed other scientists to control for other lifestyle factor and to home in on diet alone. Here is where the benefits of eating chocolate emerged.
Simply put, chocolate seems to make our brains work better. Specifically, scientists found a connection between at least weekly chocolate snacking and improved working memory, visual-spatial memory and organization, abstract reasoning, and the mini-mental state examination, which measures cognitive function.
Researchers aren’t clear on why chocolate has such a positive effect on our brains. But the scientists involved in the study did have some ideas about why this sweet treat is so good for our brain health. Nutrients called cocoa flavanols, found naturally in cocoa and thus chocolate, have been shown to have a positive effect on people’s brains. Chocolate is like both coffee and tea in that it also has methylxanthines, plant-produced compounds that enhance various bodily functions. It all sounds very science-y. But at the end of the day, researchers agree that more data is needed to elucidate the science of chocolate and our brains.
As with any new finding on the health benefits of certain foods, the key is moderation. Just as we wouldn’t eat kale and quinoa seven days a week (right?), this new study isn’t carte blanche to overindulge in chocolate bars. Researchers say that chocolate consumption should be balanced in an overall healthy eating lifestyle. But for chocolate connoisseurs, the new study should free up some guilt about indulging, and build some brainpower in the process.