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From rich creamy milk to bittersweet, few treats feel or taste more decadent or satisfying than chocolate. On its own, with nuts or paired with fruit, there is just something about nibbling on the confection that makes people happy. And the best part of all is that it can also be good for you.

Numerous studies have shown there are real cognitive and health benefits to eating chocolate.

But before you run out and buy a 10-pound box of gourmet truffles to eat while watching your favorite movie, there’s a catch. It’s important to know how much chocolate and what kinds are good for you.

Brain health

A study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science looked at phytonutrients called flavonoids, a chemical found in the cacao plant which is used to make chocolate. Those flavonoids are not only antioxidants but some studies have also shown they may play a role in preventing cancer.

Additionally, flavonoids also help your body produce nitric oxide which are the chemicals that help your blood vessels relax and lower your blood pressure, reduce your risk of stroke and help maintain overall heart health.

They also have multiple effects on the brain at the cellular and molecular levels in the regions involved in learning and memory, according to a study published by a group of international scientists including University of Maine professor Dr. Merrill Elias.

While the researchers did stop short of touting chocolate as a brain food, they did find that people who ate chocolate at least once a week performed better on cognitive functions than people who did not.

It did not matter if it was milk or dark chocolate, either.

The cacao plant also contains the compound theobromine which can also help lower your blood pressure in addition to reducing inflammation.

Feeling full

Motivation to work out can be hard to find on those dark, gray, cold days in the middle of a Maine winter. It can be really easy, on the other hand, to plunk down on the couch and snack while binging Netflix. And maybe that’s kind of okay, if you are reaching for dark chocolate.

Turns out snacking on dark chocolate can help control your appetite and even lead to weight loss. Studies have shown that eating a bit of dark chocolate before a meal will signal your brain that you are full.

Plus, it can be good for your skin too.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that the vitamins found in dark chocolate are full of minerals like copper, iron and magnesium. These minerals are all good for your existing skin and for the production of new skin cells.

Post-workout recovery

As for working out, instead of reaching for an expensive, chemical-laden sports drink for your post exercise recovery hydration, pour yourself a tall glass of low fat chocolate milk.

Chocolate milk has three to four times the complex carbohydrates of regular milk plus protein. When you workout, your body uses carbs as fuel and just like the gas in your car, your own tank needs to be refilled when it runs low. Chocolate milk has the right amount of carbohydrates, it’s easy to digest, easy for the muscles to absorb and it tastes good.

The fine print

All of this is great news for lovers of chocolate. However, in the case of eating chocolate, more is not better.

First of all, if you are looking for health benefits, you are going to want to skip milk chocolate and its added sugars and fats altogether. Instead, select a good quality dark chocolate containing 70 to 85 percent cacao. It’s tasty and because the flavors are so strong, many people feel satisfied with just a small amount.

And that’s a good thing considering a 3.5 ounce bar of dark chocolate contains more than 600 calories and 43 grams of fat. Instead, nutritionists recommend eating just one or two ounces a day.

Now that you know the good news about chocolate — and the caveats — stock up for the winter! There’s a lot of good science on your side to prove that a little chocolate really can improve your day.

This first appeared in the January/February issue of Bangor Metro Magazine, available on newsstands throughout much of Maine. Bangor Metro is also available by subscription.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.