Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

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Can eating chocolate reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes?


A recent study in the British Journal of Nutrition reportedly showed that regular consumption of chocolate could reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Naturally, I wondered if that was really what the study showed.

Looking at the study, there were a few things that stood out to me. The research was done using a food frequency questionnaire, a notoriously inaccurate measure of diet. Besides the fact that this measure is often inaccurate, is the fact that we couldn’t tell if it distinguished between types of chocolate consumed. While the authors made much of the potential link between polyphenols in chocolate and reduced risk of T2 diabetes, we don’t know if the study actually looked at types of chocolate that were rich in polyphenols. By the article, we can’t tell if they made any distinction between dark chocolate, milk chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate bars, chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, and so on. Without accounting for different types of chocolate (many of which contain negligible quantities of polyphenols) there’s no way to attribute the reduced risk of T2 diabetes to the consumption of polyphenol-rich chocolate.

Perhaps more importantly though, there’s no way we can draw any conclusions regarding causation. This wasn’t a longitudinal study so we don’t know if people who have T2 diabetes are avoiding eating chocolate (quite plausible) or if there’s some other reason why people who eat chocolate are less likely to have T2 diabetes than people who don’t.

I also wondered about the true significance of the results. For that I consulted with my math expert, Scott. His take was that the sample size wasn’t very large and that it was limited to Luxembourg. This makes it difficult to generalize the results to populations outside of Luxembourg, for example, North America, as there could be other differences between Canadians and Americans and Luxembourgians (is that the right term?) that would make it impossible to apply the findings to our population.

He also said:

Although they followed proper testing and analysis, I’d be concerned about variables that they did not include in this study, such as location and what might be in their environment or particular diet (food items not mentioned) that may distinguish this sample from say a sample in North America. I am also wary anytime the analysis includes a questionnaire or feedback rather than pure conclusions based on observed tests and results. As you well know from interviewing people at stats can, there are more than admitted “fake” stats and responses… Yes, I do see a correlation between the two, I would require further testing to be conclusive on the hypothesis.

I followed up this analysis by asking him if he thought the standard deviations were of concern. To my untrained eye, I thought that it was possible that the range for each result was large enough that there might, in actuality, be no real difference between each group. Scott said:

I would support that claim, you would want the SD to be much closer to the mean than those results. I suspect the SD would fluctuate with any other sample size tested under those conditions.

And there you have it. While it’s possible that there’s a reduced risk of having diabetes to chocolate consuming Luxembourgians, there’s more research to be done before anything definitive, especially for other populations, can be concluded.

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Let them eat chocolate cake for breakfast!


I saw the headline: Chocolate cake for breakfast? Research says it’s good for both your brain and your waistline and thought “this should be interesting”.

The author suggests that we should eat chocolate cake for breakfast because one study found that higher chocolate consumption was associated with improved cognitive function. While another study suggested that those who ate larger breakfasts (including a dessert) lost more weight and ate less later in the day than those who started their day with a less substantial meal. A bit of a leap, if you ask me to then conclude that we should be eating chocolate cake as part of a weight management cognitive enhancement regimen.

Looking at the study that ostensibly concluded that chocolate improved cognition, it immediately jumps out at me that the study drew from data from food frequency questionnaires. As you know, these are notoriously inaccurate. I also think that it’s important to note that the questionnaire in question didn’t differentiate between dark, milk, and white chocolate. White chocolate being up for debate as to whether or not it’s truly chocolate, and the form of the chocolate not being recorded (chocolate bar, ice cream, cake, cookie…) it would be difficult to conclude that there was any one attribute of these forms of chocolate that could improve cognition. As the authors point out, there is no way to infer a causal relationship. Just because people who ate chocolate at least once a week fared better on cognitive tests than those who ate it less than once a week doesn’t mean that there’s not some other reason that they fared better on these tests. While the results were statistically significant, I wonder how meaningful they are in actuality.

While I can attest to the benefits of “front loading” your day for many trying to lose weight or maintain weight loss, I wondered about the study the article referenced. Fortunately, someone else had already thrown shade on it (back in 2010!) so I don’t feel the need to duplicate their comments. For anyone who can’t be bothered to click the link, suffice to say the study author has come out with a diet book and the study upon which she based this plan is flawed.

Okay, what’s the takeaway? I’ve got nothing against chocolate. I’ve got nothing against chocolate cake. In fact, writing this post prompted me to fetch a slice of leftover chocolate cake to munch on while I typed. That being said, I wouldn’t include it as part of a nutritious breakfast. If you were eating chocolate cake for breakfast on the regular you’d be hard-pressed to get all of the nutrients you need without getting more calories than you need. If you want to add chocolate to your breakfast in a healthier way you could add some cocoa powder to your smoothie or some raw cacao nibs to your oatmeal. Save the cake for special occasions (and blogging).



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Do girls start craving chocolate in the womb?


A recent study was reported as showing that “a woman’s craving for chocolate may start in the womb”. Kind of interesting, I guess. Except the study didn’t really show this at all.

The researchers took 100 pregnant women who hadn’t had chocolate in the past 90 days. 46 carried a male fetus and 54 carried a female. The researchers then measured the heart rates of the babies both before and after the mothers ate 30 grams of 80% cocoa chocolate. All fetuses showed more movement after their mothers ate the chocolate. However, the female fetuses became considerably more active. Interesting, no? More interesting to me is that female fetuses are more active (with or without chocolate) on average than male fetuses. 

But… I can’t help but wonder what the result would have been if the mothers had eaten a food other than chocolate. Perhaps the fetal movement had nothing to do with chocolate per se. I also think it’s a bit of a stretch to come to the conclusion that this study is showing that the origin of female chocolate cravings is in the womb. Increased movement doesn’t necessarily equate to cravings later in life. 


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Chocolate, cocoa, and cacao

I’m sure you’ve all read many news articles about the benefits of chocolate. The media loves to latch onto any hope that delicious things may be good for us. Sadly, there’s very little reason to believe that Wunderbars are nutritional powerhouses (unless calories and saturated fat are the primary nutrients you’re looking for). However, there are reasons to believe that cocoa powder and solid chocolate (both dark and milk) may have some health benefits.

As with any food, the less it’s processed, the better it is for you. That’s why you’ll find many health-conscious cooks and bakers calling for non-alkalized (fyi: alkalized cocoa powder is also called “Dutch processed”) cocoa powder in recipes. Most commercial chocolate bars are going to be highly processed. Unfortunately, there’s no way to determine just how much processing chocolate has undergone by reading the label. You may want to try using cacao nibs in your baking if you want to avoid the added sugar, milk, and fat of chocolate chips. Cacao nibs are essentially roasted cocoa beans which are ready to be ground up to be made into chocolate.

The benefits of chocolate and cocoa appear to primarily come from the flavenols and antioxidants they contain. The flavenols appear to have heart health benefits through reduction of blood pressure. Antioxidants may reduce oxidative cell damage, slightly slowing the anti-aging process. Chocolate is also a mood booster. Of course, as with any food, you can have too much of a good thing. At the moment, the ideal amount of chocolate to consume is about 1 ounce, several times a week.

One tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder contains only 12 calories, 0.74 g fat, 1.8 g fibre, and 27 mg magnesium.

One ounce of dark chocolate (70-85% cacao solids) has about 171 calories, 3.1 g fibre, 12.2 g fat, 2.2 g protein, 20.8 mg calcium, 65 mg magnesium, and 204 mg potassium.

One ounce of milk chocolate contains about 153 calories, only 1 g fibre, 2.2 g protein, 8.5 g fat, 54 mg calcium, 106 mg potassium, and 18 mg magnesium.



Wheat vs chocolate: a battle to your death

It seems like more and more people are turning to gluten-free or wheat-free products as a panacea, regardless of whether or not the avoidance of gluten or wheat is warranted. There are a number of books and advocates for such a diet; the primary one being Wheat Belly. Not having read the book myself (although I suppose I will have to remedy this at some point – I just don’t want to actually pay money to do so) I can’t comment on it directly. My current approach to dealing with zealous converts is to state that consuming too much of any one type of food is not a balanced diet and that most of us could benefit from consuming a wider variety of grains.

Anyway… A fan of the book enthusiastically told me that whole wheat bread causes a greater spike in blood sugar than a chocolate bar does. This did nothing to convince me of the evils of wheat. However, I can see how it might help to persuade someone who doesn’t fully understand the concept of the glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL).

The GI is “the blood glucose response of a given food compared to a standard (typically; glucose or white bread).” It’s how rapidly your blood sugar will increase when you consume a particular food (containing 50 g of carbohydrate), as compared to a simple carbohydrate which is easiest for your body to convert into sugar. A GI of 55 or less is considered to be low, 56-69 is medium, and 70 and above is high. However, GI only considered the form of carbohydrate in a food, it failed to take into account the fact that people may not (and often do not) consume foods in quantities that will provide them with 50 g of carbohydrate. Thus, GL was developed. The GL is “the amount of carbohydrate in a food multiplied by the glycemic index of that carbohydrate. The result is then divided by 100”. The GL is a percentage; the lower the number the less overall impact the food actually has on your blood sugar. Less than 10 is low GL, 11-19 is intermediate, and more than 20 is high.

Let’s compare that whole wheat bread and chocolate bar. One slice of whole wheat bread has an average GI of 69 and a GL of 9. One ounce of chocolate has a GI of 49 and a GL of 9. Whole wheat flour is finely ground so it’s rapidly converted into blood glucose. Even though chocolate has a lower GI than bread it actually has the same GL depending on the quantity consumed. Clearly, there is no reason to demonize bread based on this data alone. GI and GL are just a couple of small tools in food selection. Different sources will provide you with different figures for the same foods. In addition, the GL for one variety of whole wheat bread may vary significantly from another. The other foods you consume at a meal will all provide different GLs so unless you’re eating plain bread or bread with just jam on it, knowing the GL of your bread isn’t all that useful. Also, gluten-free and wheat-free breads have similar GI and GL profiles to whole wheat bread rendering a switch to these products for this reason alone unnecessary.

If you’re considering going wheat- or gluten-free because it’s the trendy thing right now you might want to reconsider. Unhealthy gluten-free products are a rapidly growing industry. Instead, consider consuming a wider variety of grains and try to consume more grains in as close to their natural state as possible. Some to try: wheat berries, buckwheat, wild rice, millet, groats, barley, etc.

*All figures taken from Perspectives in Nutrition by Gordon Wardlaw and Jeffrey Hampl (no APA or MLA here. Take that university education!)