Note: This article was posted as part of The Frugal LowCarber’s ChocolateFest 2012. For more great recipes and ideas, see the main ChocolateFest page!
Some of us come to a low carb lifestyle assuming we can’t have chocolate. Others of us come in assuming we can. Either way, we may be in for a surprise.
The human relationship to chocolate is a complicated one, especially in this modern world. A single bit of advice definitely does not fit all where chocolate is concerned!
In an attempt to try and make sense of it all, I asked the good folks on the Active Low-Carber Forums about the chocolate in their diets or the lack thereof. Then I took their answers, did some more reading, and stirred it all together in my brain.
The result is this list of things you need to know before you decide whether or not to indulge. Anything that helps you out is due to the forum members’ input; anything that doesn’t is completely my own darn fault.
11 Things You Need to Know About Chocolate
1. Chocolate and its sweeteners are not the same thing.
As I hinted Wednesday, we’ve been conditioned to think of chocolate as that stuff by the checkout counter at the grocery store. Or those sampler boxes people use as gifts on special occasions. But those candies aren’t made of just chocolate; they also contain a whole lot more.
Of course those items can’t be part of a healthy low carb eating style. But if we redefine chocolate as “a product of the cacao bean,” things start looking a little different.
2. Chocolate can be good for us.
Most of us have probably heard this by now, but it bears repeating. Chocolate—without the added junk—is a decent source of magnesium and iron, and it’s a great source of copper and manganese. It’s also a good source of fiber and and fat. In addition, chocolate contains antioxidants, which provide a variety of health benefits.
3. Chocolate also contains some questionable chemicals.
Chocolate contains small traces of caffeine. It also contains larger amounts of theobromine, a chemical which is related to caffeine and has similar effects.
In addition, chocolate naturally contains anandamide, a cannabinoid which is also created by the human brain. But that’s not all: chocolate also has two related chemicals which inhibit our ability to get anandamide out of our systems.
While it won’t make us “high,” researchers believe the anandamide is partially responsible for the sense of well-being that some of us get from eating chocolate. And those other two chemicals, by keeping anandamide in our systems longer, may promote and prolong that feeling of well-being. (This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how it’s used.)
4. All cacao products are not created equal.
Unsweetened baking chocolate contains more vitamins, minerals and fat than cocoa powder. The cocoa powder contains the same amount of fiber, and costs less for the same amount of chocolate flavor.
Then there are cacao nibs. Cacao nibs are bits of roasted cracked cacao bean. Because they aren’t nearly as processed as baking chocolate or powder, cacao nibs will be much higher in all the nutrients and chemicals. Cacao nibs are usually ground in a home coffee grinder before being added to beverages and dishes.
5. Chocolate is still a treat.
Chocolate does contain other carbohydrates, and it shouldn’t substitute for vegetables at main meals. Many low carbers are able to incorporate it into healthy snacks and desserts—or even use it as sauces on main dishes—and many do eat it daily. But chocolate still needs to be handled with caution and respect.
6. The sweetener question is complicated.
Once we understand all of the above items, the next logical step for many people is to search the candy aisle for chocolate treats with alternate sweeteners. After all, sugar = bad and not-sugar = good, right?
Unfortunately, no; it’s much more complicated than that.
Most of the sugar-free treats on the grocery shelves are made with maltitol and other sugar alcohols. And most of those contribute carbs to our diet and cause gastrointestinal distress. Low carbers who are able to incorporate sweetened chocolate into their diets usually go one of two routes, or use a combination of both:
- They make their own at home. Most opt to use some combination of erythritol or xylitol (two beneficial sugar alcohols) and stevia or sucralose. Some may use other sweeteners on occasion.
- They reach for the dark chocolate, then portion it. When there’s no time to make the chocolate, most people find a little bit of sugar preferable to the other choices on the candy aisle. Most low carbers who go this route choose 85% or higher plain dark chocolate, and eat only a square or two at a time. Some will sometimes choose chocolate that’s as low as 70%.
In addition, some low carbers will choose to reduce the associations between sweet tastes and chocolate. They will develop unsweetened chocolate dishes, or gradually lower the amounts of sweetener they put in their chocolate candies and baked goods.
7. Chocolate can trigger binges.
As near as I can tell, there’s no single reason for this. Sometimes it’s the associations with sugar, other times the similarities to caffeine, and sometimes it’s a need for chocolate’s nutrients–or some combination of those, or something else entirely! Whatever the reason(s), some people can’t stop eating chocolate once they start. For this reason, some low carbers choose to abstain from chocolate and get their nutrients from other sources.
8. Your eating plan might not allow it.
Most low carb diets eventually make room for some form of chocolate in moderation. But many very low carbers simply don’t have a high enough carb allowance to let that chocolate in. They have other nutritious foods that they need to eat instead.
9. Chocolate can sometimes stall weight loss.
For some people, chocolate is safe to eat later in their diets, when they are ready to maintain their weight, but not early on. If you find yourself stalling, look and see whether chocolate might be one of the reasons.
10. There are ways to fight those cravings.
Chocolate cravings are real. On the days it’s not safe to give in, it helps to have a strategy in place. Some people reach for magnesium-rich foods, others look for a healthy fat source. Ladies who get cravings at certain times of the month may especially benefit from foods high in magnesium. (Magnesium deficiency is thought to aggravate pre-menstrual symptoms.)
There may also be other options. Reading, research, and stocking up on healthy substitutes can make a big difference in whether or not chocolate wrecks your day!
11. Few people drop the chocolate entirely.
Most of the people who responded to my forum threads eat chocolate at least once in a while. Only a few found that they needed to avoid chocolate entirely. And while this was not a scientific survey, I would be surprised if greater trends among successful low carbers are much different.
Summary and further reading
Whether or not you wind up with chocolate in your diet, these 11 items give you tools you need to make some informed decisions–and to head off any trouble before it starts.
In addition to the forum threads mentioned above, you might also enjoy these two articles:
Happy eating, whatever you decide!
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