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Favorite foods that are surprisingly good for you

I love research. If all of those researchers had not been toiling away in their laboratories, we would never have known that some of our favorite foods are actually beneficial to our health. Take chocolate, for example. Having a doctor say, “Chocolate is good for you; eat more chocolate” is every chocoholic’s dream, yet thanks to the tireless work of researchers, that dream is now a reality.

Chocolate really does boost your health. It promotes a healthy heart, lowers your body mass index (BMI), and combats insulin resistance. Moreover, the theobromine and other central nervous system stimulants in chocolate elevate your mood, positively affect your mind, and encourage the production of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, which in turn helps with anxiety, irritability, and depression. Chocolate also offers a significant amount of magnesium, which regulates heartbeat, keeps your nerves healthy, helps your body regulate its temperature, aids in detoxification, increases your energy, and promotes the formation of healthy bones and teeth.

An Italian study found that people who eat a candy bar’s worth of dark chocolate over 15 days reduce their insulin resistance by nearly 50%. The flavonols in chocolate protect your skin and reduce the likelihood of sunburn. Chocolate even reduces tooth decay, calms coughs, and improves vision. More importantly, the antioxidants in chocolate may help to reduce inflammation in the body, which is a pivotal cause of many diseases.

You’re probably thinking, “There must be a catch,” and you’re somewhat correct. Yes, chocolate is good for you, but sugar is not. The catch is that most chocolate products contain sugar. For that reason, recommendations to eat more chocolate generally specify dark chocolate only. The kind of chocolate you eat makes a difference too. The less processed chocolate is, the more benefits it has. Cacao (raw cocoa) is better for you than cocoa (processed cocoa). So when you hear “Eat more chocolate,” the idea is to consume more chocolate, not necessarily more chocolate candy. One way of doing this is to use plain cacao or cocoa powder in cooking and beverages. You can shake up a tablespoon of the powder plus a little vanilla and some stevia in a glass of protein drink, nut milk, or cow’s milk, and you’ll have a nice dose of chocolate in your beverage.

Researchers have known for some time that nuts are good for you, but only recently have they found that eating tree nuts cuts the risk of death from all causes by up to 20% depending upon how often you eat nuts. People who ate one serving of nuts less than once a week had 7% lower mortality, while those who ate nuts once a week had 11% lower mortality. Eating nuts 2 to 4 times a week resulted in a 13% reduction in death, while eating them 5 to 6 times a week led to a 15% reduction. People who ate nuts 7 times or more per week had a 20% reduction in death rate.

If you like nuts, this is great news, especially since the benefits of nuts are higher for some diseases than others; for example, one study showed that eating nuts every day reduced deaths from heart disease by almost 30%--that’s a phenomenal benefit. The designation “tree nuts” refers to walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, macadamias, pecans, cashews, pistachios, and pine nuts. Notably absent are peanuts, which are not tree nuts but legumes that grow in the ground. Peanuts are a major health liability because they are nearly always infected with molds, and quite often with the dangerous mold aflatoxin.

Of course, just as with chocolate, there are good and bad types of nuts. Highly processed, greasy, overly salted nuts are not what you want here. Choose nuts that are raw or lightly processed, preferably salted with sea salt if you like them salted. I like roasted nut butters—especially the Kettle brand available in Kroger’s health food aisle—simply because roasting greatly enhances the flavor. I often choose raw nuts and nut butters too, though, because they generally work better in recipes. Avoid nuts that are deep fried or have a lot of additives, and stay away from nuts that have gone rancid and smell bad. If you’re buying nut butters, buy them in the health food aisle and read the label before you toss them into your cart. They should have zero hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils and preferably no form of sugar added; a natural sweetener like agave, maple syrup, or stevia is good, although nut butters really don’t need sweeteners. The fresher the nuts and the less that’s been done to them, the better.

Frankly, I never expected to hear that chocolate was a health food, but it certainly made my day, especially since—let’s be honest—I was going to eat it anyway. The benefits of nuts are also far greater than I ever anticipated. Research is doing away with many of the food myths we’ve all been trained to believe, and happily, sometimes the news is really good.

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