Dark chocolate is your stress-busting, waist-whittling savior. It pays to be picky about your bar, though. Skip the cappuccino-colored milk varieties and head straight to where they shelve the bold-flavored dark bars. Lighter kinds are loaded with sugar and seriously lacking in actual cocoa bean content–the singular ingredient that supplies all the health benefits. “Chocolate should be as minimally processed as possible to offer the most nutritional benefit. Choose chocolate that is 70% cocoa or higher, and aim for one that has no milk solids, extra syrups (glucose syrup, sugar) or other un-pronounceable ingredients,” says Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian, and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition.
So, exactly how can this sweet help keep your weight in check? From cutting cravings to controlling appetite, chocolate has quite a few tricks up its sleeve.
It Cuts Cravings
It seems a little counterintuitive, but to really take control over your cravings you’ve got to indulge in them. “A little sweet treat on occasion can help keep those cravings in check and allow you to follow your weight-loss or weight-maintenance regimen,” says Maria-Paula Carrillo, M.S., R.D.N., L.D. With most weight-loss plans you end up cutting back a lot on sweets and sugary foods, but a small amount of dark chocolate each day can help prevent you from reaching for something higher in sugar and lower in nutritional value.
It Decreases Body Fat
Thanks to certain flavanols that exist in chocolate, the sweet treat has been found to help lower blood sugar and also decrease body fat according to the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. “Flavanols are plant-based nutrients and are more prevalent in dark chocolate than in milk chocolate,” explains Carrillo. However, too much of anything can lead to weight gain, so be very adamant about portion control! “Buy individually-wrapped dark chocolate pieces, and choose to have one or two as a dessert,” says Smith.
It Controls Appetite
Believe it or not, chocolate actually contains a decent amount of fiber, which helps keep your appetite in check and increase feelings of satiety. One 3.5-ounce bar of 70% dark chocolate contains around 16% of your daily recommended intake. Of course foods like oatmeal or broccoli will always come out on top when it comes to fiber content. Nevertheless, when we’re talking sweets—choosing dark chocolate over nutritionally empty candies for an afternoon snack will delay that “hangry” feeling much more effectively.
It Reduces Stress
It’s not your imagination: Eating small amounts of chocolate every day can help you relax, according to a study published in the Journal of Proteome Research. Stress triggers weight gain because it causes your cortisol levels to spike, increasing appetite and encouraging you to eat based on emotions rather than physical need—both of which result in overeating. If you can manage your stress levels, you can better control what you put in your mouth. Eating dark chocolate increases serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain, which helps alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety and boost your mood.
It Reduces Inflammation
When your body is inflamed, it experiences problems at the cellular level. Chronic inflammation has been not only linked to heart disease, cancer and diabetes, but also has been found to increase insulin resistance, and interfere with feelings of hunger and metabolism-regulating hormones. Munching on dark chocolate in moderation can help prevent and repair the cellular damage caused by inflammation because the flavanols found in cocoa contain anti-inflammatory properties, according to an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study. If you’re up for it, Smith suggests adding cacao nibs to yogurt, oatmeal, or smoothies. “They’re unsweetened and offer many nutrients without too many extra calories or grams of sugar. They're also bitter, so try them alone before you toss them in your breakfast!” says Smith.