You’ve probably heard about how great cocoa flavanols are for improving blood flow, lowering blood glucose levels, etc. Some recent research has pulled together just how they may be useful in metabolic Syndrome (MetSyn).
Basics before the good stuff: You have metabolic syndrome if you have 3 or more of these conditions:
- High triglyceride levels
- High fasting blood sugar
- Large waist circumference
- Low HDL cholesterol (the good type of cholesterol)
- At least borderline high blood pressure
If you do, you’re like 1 in 3 Americans, according to a 2015 study, although many don’t know it. Having even one of these conditions increases your risk for chronic diseases, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke, and your risk is ever higher if you have metabolic syndrome. These conditions are also impacted by diet, so finding dietary approaches to manage metabolic syndrome is a first-line approach. Sounds awful, but it isn’t, and you may get some help where you never expected any.
Cocoa flavanols to the rescue
Cocoa is one of the most, if not the most, concentrated sources of antioxidants in the diets. We may get a larger quantity of antioxidants from other foods, like tea, coffee, fruits and vegetables, but that’s because we eat larger amounts of them and on a daily basis.
A recent review in the highly respected Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry looked at just how and why cocoa acts to be healthful (OK, maybe only us “chocolate-science nerds” ever really think about this). Here’s what the authors concluded about cocoa and metabolic syndrome:
· Cocoa flavanols slow down the action of digestive enzymes. Blood sugar doesn’t spike, digestion of starch is delayed, and insulin seems to respond better. Nice news: larger doses work better, but no one is preaching an unqualified “more is better” yet.
- Regular cocoa consumption has “pre-biotic” effects, e.g. encourages growth of good bacteria, helping the colon lining work effectively to limit absorption of endotoxin (what bad bacteria release when they breakdown). How so? It seems to reduce the absorption of endotoxins (the stuff that’s released when bacteria disintegrate). When they’re absorbed, they can damage blood vessels and mess up insulin regulation, so less is definitely better here.
- Cocoa flavanols improve the sensitivity of insulin in your muscles. The flavanols themselves aren’t absorbed well, but the healthy gut bacteria break them down and those by-products are what gets absorbed and what seem to do the good work.
Metabolic syndrome and especially type 2 diabetes, are associated with chronic low-grade inflammation. Through a variety of mechanisms, the powerful antioxidant activity of cocoa flavanols may also help reduce this inflammation, and in an enjoyable way.
There’s still much more to know, however. Many of the studies in humans were of short duration, so it’s not known if observed benefits fade after a few weeks or months. Dark chocolate is where the flavanols reside, but specific doses of cocoa for each condition and best ways to administer cocoa for maximum effect are also unknown.
There’s excellent news on potential benefits of cocoa and its flavanol compounds, and their potential impact on metabolic syndrome, diabetes, blood glucose control, and other chronic health risks.
We still need to remember that the ways in which we consume cocoa – bars, truffles, hot chocolate, etc. provide calories. Too many of those – from ANY source — will contribute to weight gain, one of the hallmark hazards of metabolic syndrome.
So it is with chocolate and cocoa as it is with alcohol: eat with your head, not over it. An ounce a day of the darker stuff, or a good scoop of cocoa powder in a drink, is just fine.
When all this shakes out, I really hope they find that food is the best way to get cocoa flavanols. Nothing deflates pleasure more than substituting a pill for a great tasting food. Also — I posted a more detailed account of this research at: www.cuttothechasenutrition.com if you want to read more.