Health: Chocolate and its role in eating healthily

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Easter eggs are still everywhere – but can they ever be part of a healthy diet? Katie Baldwin asked the experts.

Easter may be over, but there are probably still plenty of its remnants around.

For many, the celebration has become as synonymous with chocolate as it has with religion.

The shops are filled with Easter eggs for months beforehand and tales abound of keen youngsters waking their parents up in the early hours on Easter Sunday to delve into their stash.

And for the adults, it’s often an excuse to tuck in to some treats too.

But if you’re following a healthy diet – as experts advise all of us do – can you still eat chocolate?

According to one Leeds doctor, you don’t have to abstain altogether.

Simon Dexter, consultant weight loss surgeon at Spire Leeds Hospital in Roundhay, says there is a place for chocolate in a healthy diet.

“Eating healthily doesn’t mean being deprived of anything enjoyable. A modest amount of chocolate should be fine.”

But he does add: “However it is a highly calorific and does little to offset hunger as has very low bulk associated with it.”

So eating in moderation is the key - but how much is reasonable to have each day?

Chocolate is a concentrated source of fat, saturated fat, sugar and calories. A typical 
egg contains around 1,000 calories and a square of chocolate contains around 25 to 30 kcal.

Running a mile will burn off around 100 to 150 calories, says Mr Dexter.

It’s easy to see that a small amount is the limit unless you are running regular marathons.

“Several squares of chocolate per day with an otherwise healthy diet and an active lifestyle would be entirely reasonable,” Mr Dexter explained.

“In other words if you don’t want to put on weight, cut back elsewhere, or earn your treats with some exercise.”

Experts at Leeds-based charity Heart Research UK have tips for rationing treats.

They suggest giving youngsters smaller eggs, so they can have one a day.

And for a healthier snack, save up some of their chocolate eggs to melt and then dip in pieces of apple, pear, pineapple, strawberry and blueberry for a fun holiday actitity which will also give them some of their five-a-day.

As for choosing what kind of chocolate to eat, dark chocolate with a high cocoa content of 70 per cent or over has a reputation as being the better option as it has more antioxidants.

Mr Dexter says that this type canhave a positive effect, but in small quanitities as a treat.

“There are beneficial effects attributed to chocolate, and one study in particular found fewer cardiovascular events such as stroke in individuals who consumed a small amount of chocolate regularly over those who abstained completely,” he said.

“However the health benefits will clearly be 
offset if the calorie loading of chocolate causes people to become overweight.”

A recent small study found that flavanoids in dark chocolate could protect heart health.

It saw 44 middle-aged overweight men eat 70 grams of chocolate per day, some which was specially-produced dark chocolate with high flavonoid content.

But the British Heart Foundation warned about the findings. Senior dietitian Victoria Taylor said: “While chocoholics might get quite excited by this research, this is a small study so the results are far from conclusive.

“We do know that flavonoids in cocoa have been shown to have heart health benefits. However, when we eat them in chocolate, they come with saturated fat, sugar and calories, which aren’t good for your heart or your waistline.

“The good news is that flavonoids can be found in a wide range of foods. A diet rich in fruit and veg, combined with an active lifestyle, is the best way to keep your heart healthy.”

Mr Dexter agrees any health benefits are wiped out if chocolate leads to obesity.

“It is likely that the maximum benefit will be achieved in people who eat a modest amount of chocolate but who have a generally healthy diet and an active lifestyle, so that weight gain is not an inevitable outcome,” he said.

PIC: Bruce Rollinson

Windswept land of myth and 800-year-old spells