Can Dark Chocolate Lower Insulin Resistance?

Eating sweets doesn’t have to derail your blood glucose control. Research has shown a link between dark chocolate and insulin resistance.

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by
Chelsea Rae Bourgeois, MS, RD
— Signos
Health writer
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
May 20, 2024
August 10, 2021
— Updated:
October 1, 2023

Table of Contents

One of the most widely accepted myths about blood glucose control is that sweet snacks are totally off-limits. There’s no need to say goodbye to your favorite sweets, especially nutrient-dense treats like dark chocolate. Research has shown that eating dark chocolate can offer anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and cardiovascular health benefits while improving endothelial function.1

This article will review the benefits of dark chocolate as they relate to overall health and insulin resistance, specifically. Plus, we’ll cover tips for incorporating this delicious chocolate into your well-balanced diet.

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What is Dark Chocolate?

Dark chocolate is made with cocoa butter, cocoa solids, and sugar—typically more cocoa solids and less sugar than milk chocolate, giving it a richer, more robust flavor. While its distinct taste sets it apart, dark chocolate is most known for its antioxidants, flavonoids, polyphenols, and other compounds that may help reduce risk factors for metabolic disease.

Chocolate dates back thousands of years with ties to Central America. Today, we continue to enjoy the positive effects of cocoa through modern harvesting practices. To produce dark chocolate, the seeds are extracted from the cacao pod before being fermented, dried, and roasted into the ever-popular cocoa bean. Next, the shells are separated from the cocoa nibs, ground into a liquid, and separated from the cocoa solids. Once the nibs are removed, the cocoa bean is ground into the cocoa powder used in baking and some beverages.1

Dark chocolate may contain as little as 50% and as much as 90% cocoa solids, with the higher percentages having more nutrition and a richer flavor. It is a versatile sweet food that can be used in various dishes–in everything from oatmeal and yogurt bowls to smoothies and ice cream.

How are Insulin and Dark Chocolate Related?

Managing your blood sugar levels can sometimes feel like a science, especially for those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. Not all carbohydrates are created equal; some serve our bodies better than others. For example, whole grains and fruits typically provide more nutrition than your average dessert. But that doesn’t mean those sweet delicacies are off-limits.

Daily consumption of dark chocolate has been linked to improved insulin sensitivity and blood sugar levels. A 2017 meta-analysis reviewed several studies and found that dark chocolate contains flavonoids that help lower insulin resistance while improving glucose tolerance and reducing oxidative stress.2 

Is Dark Chocolate OK for Diabetes?

It’s a common misconception that living with diabetes means giving up your favorite sweet treats or severely restricting your carb intake. Diabetes management requires mindful eating, but it’s not an all-or-nothing mindset. You can honor your food cravings and enjoy carbohydrate-dense foods in moderation. And if you’re craving something sweet and want to be proactive with your diabetes care, a serving of rich dark chocolate offers many health benefits.

Dark chocolate is a polyphenol-rich food, meaning it can improve your overall health on many levels. Dark chocolate can alter glucose metabolism, improve insulin sensitivity, and reduce oxidative stress.

Still, it’s important to remember that diabetes care is personalized. If you have questions about incorporating dark chocolate into your balanced diet, consult your healthcare professional.

What is the Nutritional Value of Dark Chocolate?  

Dark chocolate

Dark chocolate is a nutrient-dense chocolate. According to the USDA, 100 grams (g) of dark chocolate with 70-85% cocoa solids provides:3

  • 598 calories
  • 7.8 g of protein
  • 45.9 g of carbohydrates
  • 42.6 g of fat
  • 24 g of sugar
  • 10.9 g of dietary fiber
  • 228 milligrams (mg) of magnesium
  • 11.9 mg of iron
  • 3.3 mg of zinc

Milk chocolate, on the other hand, is less nutrient-dense. The same-size serving provides:4

  • 565 calories
  • 7.6 g of protein
  • 59.4 g of carbohydrates
  • 29.7 g of fat
  • 51.5 g of sugar
  • 3.4 g of dietary fiber
  • 63 mg of magnesium
  • 2.4 mg of iron
  • 2.3 mg of zinc

Benefits of Dark Chocolate

Dark chocolate is loaded with nutrients, making it a beneficial choice for overall health. Consuming dark chocolate is believed to support many avenues of health, and science has consistently backed up the claims. 

Loaded With Antioxidants

Flavanols are polyphenols that are potent phytochemicals with antioxidant properties, and both can be found in dark chocolate. These antioxidants help fight against free radicals, thus reducing oxidative stress and the risk of related health issues.

Improves Blood Flow

The flavonoids found in dark chocolate can stimulate nitric oxide production in the endothelium or the lining of your arteries. Nitric oxide is responsible for sending signals to your blood vessels to relax, helping blood flow and possibly lowering blood pressure in those with hypertension.

Lowers Cholesterol

Consuming dark chocolate may also help protect your heart against high cholesterol. Research has shown a link between eating dark chocolate and lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.9 The antioxidant properties can help protect lipoproteins in the bloodstream from oxidative damage.

Improves Brain Functions

Improved blood flow to the brain can help improve attention and memory in the short term, as cocoa contains stimulants like caffeine. Additionally, research has shown that dark chocolate has been linked to improved executive function, memory, and cognitive vitality.5

Reduces Heart Disease Risks

While dark chocolate contains lipids, it may improve heart health when consumed in moderation.6 The compounds in dark chocolate are influential in protecting against oxidation, meaning cholesterol is less likely to lodge in the arteries and contribute to cardiovascular disease.

May Protect Your Skin.

The flavanols found in dark chocolate can protect against sun damage and improve blood flow to the skin. Studies have shown that eating flavanol-rich dark chocolate can increase the minimal erythemal dose or the amount of UVB rays needed to cause redness in the skin.7

Potential Downsides of Dark Chocolate 

Dark chocolate, especially when consumed in moderation, can offer multiple health benefits due to its rich antioxidant, fiber, and essential nutrient content. However, overconsumption can lead to potential downsides, such as weight gain, poor blood sugar control, and digestive discomfort.

  • Weight Gain: Dark chocolate is a calorie-dense food, primarily because of its sugar and lipid content. Overconsumption can lead to weight gain over time.
  • Poor Blood Sugar Control: While dark chocolate doesn’t contain as much sugar as milk chocolate, it can still cause a spike in blood sugar levels if consumed excessively.
  • Digestive Discomfort: Dark chocolate is a good source of fiber, which can support gut health over time. However, consuming too much fiber at once may cause gastrointestinal distress.

How to Choose the Right Dark Chocolate?

how to choose the right dark chocolate

When picking the best dark chocolate for your health and wellness needs, some varieties are better than others, especially while managing blood glucose levels. Consider these tips when choosing the right dark chocolate:

Check the Percentage of Cocoa Content

Even if a chocolate bar is labeled dark chocolate, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the healthiest option. For example, some chocolate may be as low as 30% cocoa, similar to regular milk chocolate. Look for dark chocolate that is at least 70-85% cocoa for maximum health benefits.

Keep an Eye on the Sugar Content

Dark chocolate doesn’t contain nearly as much sugar as other chocolate options. Still, it has enough to affect your blood sugars and weight loss efforts, especially if consumed excessively. Be mindful of the sugar content in each serving, and try to avoid dark chocolate with an excessive amount of added sugars. 

Be Mindful of the Carb Content

When managing your blood sugar levels, monitoring your carbohydrate intake is essential.8 While dark chocolate may have a more moderate amount of carbs than milk or white chocolate, it still contains some. Look for dark chocolate with approximately 13-30 g per serving to keep your carb intake in check.

Choose Artificially Sweetened Chocolate Mindfully

Artificial sweeteners may cause digestive upset for some people. Consider your tolerance of artificial sweeteners and be mindful of those included in dark chocolate.

Consider Sugar-Free Cocoa or Cacao Nibs

Sugar-free cocoa and cacao nibs might be wise for those who want to enjoy a chocolatey flavor without added sugar. They offer the rich taste of chocolate with flexibility in your sweetening options.

Tips for a Healthy Choice (and Consumption) 

Research continues to highlight the many positive effects of dark chocolate, especially when consumed in moderation. To maximize the purported health benefits of this deliciously sweet treat, consider these tips:

  • Eat Small Squares

Eat a small piece of chocolate after your meal or as desired. Allow yourself to be present and enjoy the preportioned dessert without guilt.

  • Sprinkle Cacao Nibs on Your Food

You can add cacao nibs to various dishes and snacks, including yogurt, pancakes, trail mix, and granola. Adding a sprinkle of cacao nibs can help satisfy your sweet tooth while adding all the nutritional benefits of dark chocolate.

  • Add Cocoa Powder to Smoothies or Morning Shakes

Cocoa powder can make a great addition to your favorite smoothies or protein shakes. Satisfy your chocolate cravings without significantly skewing your insulin levels.

  • Add the Grated Dark Chocolate to Oatmeal

Adding dark chocolate shavings to your bowl of oatmeal adds a rich chocolate flavor and a plethora of nutrients to an already nutritious dish. Plus, it helps satisfy any chocolate cravings.

Balance in nutrition is key to supporting overall health. Restricting sweets can be detrimental, so it’s essential to find nutrient-dense options that can satisfy your sweet tooth. No matter how you decide to incorporate dark chocolate into your well-balanced diet, it boasts many potential health benefits.

If you have questions about including dark chocolate in your diet, consider meeting with a registered dietitian nutritionist to address your individualized needs.

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References

  1. Samanta, S., Sarkar, T., Chakraborty, R., Rebezov, M., Shariati, M. A., Thiruvengadam, M., & Rengasamy, R. R. (2022). Dark chocolate: An overview of its biological activity, processing, and fortification approaches.Current Research in Food Science, 5, 1916-1943. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.crfs.2022.10.017
  2. Shah, S. R., Alweis, R., Najim, N. I., Dharani, A. M., Jangda, M. A., Shahid, M., Kazi, A. N., & Shah, S. A. (2017). Use of dark chocolate for diabetic patients: A review of the literature and current evidence.Journal of Community Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives, 7(4), 218-221. https://doi.org/10.1080/20009666.2017.1361293
  3. Chocolate, dark, 70-85% cacao solids. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019. Accessed September 28, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170273/nutrients.
  4. Candies, milk chocolate. FoodData Central. April 1, 2019. Accessed September 28, 2023. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/167587/nutrients
  5. Nemoto, K., Kokubun, K., Ogata, Y., Koike, Y., Arai, T., & Yamakawa, Y. (2022). Dark Chocolate Intake May Reduce Fatigue and Mediate Cognitive Function and Gray Matter Volume in Healthy Middle-Aged Adults. Behavioural neurology, 2022, 6021811. https://doi.org/10.1155/2022/6021811
  6. Hooper, L., Kay, C., Abdelhamid, A., Kroon, P. A., Cohn, J. S., Rimm, E. B., & Cassidy, A. (2012). Effects of chocolate, cocoa, and flavan-3-ols on cardiovascular health: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized trials.The American journal of clinical nutrition, 95(3), 740–751. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.111.023457
  7. Martin, M. Á., & Ramos, S. (2021). Impact of cocoa flavanols on human health.Food and Chemical Toxicology, 151, 112121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2021.112121
  8. Carb counting. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 19, 2023. Accessed September 27, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/managing/eat-well/diabetes-and-carbohydrates.html.
  9. Darand, M., Hajizadeh Oghaz, M., Hadi, A., Atefi, M., & Amani, R. (2021). The effect of cocoa/dark chocolate consumption on lipid profile, glycemia, and blood pressure in diabetic patients: A meta-analysis of observational studies. Phytotherapy research : PTR, 35(10), 5487–5501. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.7183

About the author

Chelsea Rae Bourgeois is a registered dietitian nutritionist with several years of experience working in the clinical setting. Once a track and field athlete on a competitive stage, she now finds joy in combining her passions as a health writer to help people embrace their wellness through nutrition and fitness.

View Author Bio

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