Thursday, March 15, 2012

Eat your veggies - and your chocolate!

By Melissa Gaskill
We’ve known for a while now that eating plant-based foods is good for our health. Plants contain a variety of compounds that act as antioxidants, helping to rid our bodies of oxygen free radicals, which can wreak all kinds of havoc in our cells.

Clinical trails have even shown that eating moderate amounts of chocolate — which is, after all, a plant based food — can lower the risk of heart disease. Now, lab studies indicate that cocoa may even help prevent some kinds of cancers, including colon cancer.

The plant chemicals in cocoa include catechins and proanthocyanidins, members of a class of such chemicals called flavanols. Catechins are also present in green tea, grapes and berries, while grapes, berries and red wine also contain proanthocyanidins. These antioxidants help prevent DNA and cell damage and inflammation — all of which are associated with cancer risk.  

There are three stages to cancer development, according to David L. Katz, MD, MPH, director of Yale University Prevention Research Center, and antioxidants, including chocolate, can play a protective role in each one. The first stage is initiation, when something, such as DNA damage, causes a cell to mutate. Antioxidants can lower this rate of mutation.
These antioxidants help prevent DNA and cell damage and inflammation — all of which are associated with cancer risk.  
Next comes promotion, when this abnormal cell begins to grow, producing a line of cells. Part of our immune system’s job is to engulf or destroy such a cell line, but if the immune system is compromised or weak, or busy with damage elsewhere in the body, that rogue cell may get away it, Katz explains.
Because antioxidants prevent inflammation and excess of free radicals, they can tip the balance in favor of  our immune systems at this point.

The third stage, expression, is when a cancer becomes clinically detectable. This usually occurs after years or even decades, Katz says, and during that time, we can prevent as much as 60 percent of cancers through our behaviors, including things such as eating a healthy diet, avoiding tobacco, exercising, getting adequate sleep — and, perhaps, eating chocolate.

Not just any kind of chocolate will do, though, nor can you eat it in ridiculous amounts (sorry). Dark chocolate and cocoa powder are best, because they contain the highest concentrations of the beneficial plant compounds.

Candy bars, Katz points out, contain added sugar and other ingredients, which reduce the amount of beneficial compounds and add calories. Those calories can lead to weight gain, which increases your risk of cancer and could cancel out the beneficial aspects of chocolate. If you’re a milk chocolate eater, take heart: Katz points out that taste buds can be trained.
In other words, you can learn to love dark chocolate instead. Those sensitive to caffeine should use caution, though, since cocoa contains a similar stimulant.

Until someone studies chocolate’s protective effects against cancer in actual people, rather than in the lab, we won’t know the ideal amount to eat to get the most benefit without harm. But according to the Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center at Oregon State University, randomized, placebo-controlled human trials have shown that 46 grams (1.6 ounces) of dark chocolate consumed daily for two weeks improved endothelial (blood vessel) function in healthy adults, and as little as 6.3 grams  (0.22 ounces) daily reduced blood pressure. Dark chocolate generally contains at least 60 percent cocoa.

Bottom line, small amounts of dark chocolate aren't likely to cause harm, as part of a balanced diet that, ideally, according to nutritionists, is at least three-fourths plant based. And it may just help protect you from some kinds of cancer. Praise the Lord and pass the chocolate.

Green Tea House, Asian fusion restaurant, open in Alliance Town Center