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Picture it now: you wake from a restful sleep and your breakfast waits on the table. It’s not what you might expect, however. Rather than bland grains or wheat in a bowl, it’s actually a slab of delicious chocolate cake – and it’s all for you! Well, according to studies performed in recent years, that dream may be closer than you think.

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In fact, some research suggests that there are some previously undiscovered benefits to eating a chocolate breakfast. Yes, you read correctly – experts have found that it can have a positive effect on both your body and mind. But before you reach straight for the Death by Chocolate, let’s look at how it got its unhealthy image.

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Chocolate doesn’t exactly have the best reputation among health enthusiasts or caretakers for growing children. Surely they must be onto something by banning it from the breakfast table? After all, there’s definitely some compelling arguments against going cuckoo for chocolate-based cereal in the mornings. Past investigations have indicated as much.

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To begin with, chocolatey snacks are packed with calories, which are responsible for causing body fat. Indeed, such treats contain so many calories that our systems can’t burn them off efficiently. So, over time, they are converted into fat which can potentially lead to more serious conditions such as obesity.

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Chocolate products have high levels of different sorts of fat. But saturated fat specifically can have a negative effect on your well-being when ingested in excess. That’s because it incites low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol production. This, in turn, raises the grim possibility of a person becoming stricken with heart disease.

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So, if chocolate is that bad for you, why does it have to taste so damn good? Well, it’s made from a lot of sugar, which provides some of its sweet flavor. This has been a point of concern among many health professionals, not to mention parents and caregivers of sweet-toothed children.

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There are those that say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Yet chocolate offers little nutrition. Even given its milk-based ingredients, chocolate provides just 8 percent of your advised daily calcium consumption. With that in mind, aren’t you better off avoiding a foodstuff that doesn’t provide many vitamins or minerals?

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Actually, past research into the effects of chocolate have also revealed some health benefits, too. Scientists from the National Institute for Health and Welfare in the Finnish capital of Helsinki investigated the impact of chocolate intake on a male test group. The study ran from 1997 to 2012 and included more than 37,100 men from Sweden.

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The experiment was designed to observe the effects that eating chocolate would have on strokes. Among the group, the men eating the highest amount of chocolate were found to be 17 percent less likely to experience a stroke compared to the ones that ate the least. As such, the study’s overall conclusion suggested that there’s a positive link between eating chocolate and stroke resistance.

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The Finns seem to have cornered the market on chocolate studies. The University of Helsinki’s Katri Raikkonen performed another notable experiment focused exclusively on pregnant ladies. Raikkonen and her team not only observed more than 300 mothers-to-be, but also their newborn babies. And they came up with some fascinating results.

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Essentially, if the results of the study are to be believed, it seems that babies are better off when their mothers eat chocolate during pregnancy. You see, the women within the test group were asked to supply the researchers with behavioral information about their newborns. With that, the team then noticed a pattern.

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Mothers that ingested more chocolate while pregnant reported that their children responded better to unfamiliar circumstances than those who ate less. The scientists, therefore, suggested a possible link between pregnant women consuming the foodstuff and their baby’s eventual manner of behaving. They admitted, however, that there may be an unknown variable at work.

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The findings make sense, though, when you consider the other positive effects we know chocolate has on its frequent snackers. Did you know that it has phenylethylamine (PEA) in it, a chemical that has a beneficial effect on our nervous system? To be more precise, it stimulates our brain into releasing endorphins.

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Endorphins help us to block out pain, but they also promote a feeling of euphoria. They’re the same hormones that our brain releases when we’re in love – and chocolate provides it for us, too. So, just eating it makes us feel good, which might account for Raikkonen and her team’s findings.

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With all this in mind, there are a lot of conflicting views about chocolate. But is it bad or good for you? The answer is that it depends on the type of chocolate you eat, how much of it you consume, and when. Take milk and dark chocolate for example – they’re very different.

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You find a lot of milk chocolate on store shelves, and it’s fine in limited amounts. Having said that, it’s not the healthiest choice and contains a lot of the negative points that we’ve addressed. Dark chocolate, on the other hand, is produced differently, with a higher ratio of ingredients that are less bad for you.

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The secret is in the cacao seed. When these seeds are roasted, they produce cocoa, which then goes into chocolate. Cocoa is most prevalent in dark chocolate, rather than the sugar-filled milk variants filling store shelves. In some cases, it’s even been suggested that higher concentrations of cocoa can actually prove healthy.

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Dark chocolate has lots of minerals in it, including zinc, selenium and potassium. And it can actually contain just under 70 percent of your recommended amount of iron for a given day. This, of course, means you still have to be careful how much you eat. After all, you don’t want to take in too many minerals!

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Another potential benefit of dark chocolate is that it might well be capable of lowering your risk of heart disease. Remember that “bad” low-density lipoprotein cholesterol we spoke about earlier? Well, dark chocolate reduces its production and elevates your high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good” cholesterol. This, in turn, reduces the stress on your heart.

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Studies also suggest dark chocolate can help you to diet, according to Will Clower, a neuroscientist and author of Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight. According to him, it causes your brain to release hormones that make you feel full. Thus, a small piece before you sit down for a feast can stop you from feeling hungry after you’ve eaten.

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Not only that, but past studies suggest that dark chocolate can be good for your heart in other ways, too. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Research conducted tests in 2014 that indicate it has a beneficial effect on arteries. Apparently, it’s all to do with arterial pliability.

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A website called Science Daily elaborated on this notion in 2014. A piece uploaded to the platform reads, “It might seem too good to be true, but dark chocolate is good for you and scientists now know why. Dark chocolate helps restore flexibility to arteries while also preventing white blood cells from sticking to the walls of blood vessels.” This reduces atherosclerosis, one of the leading causes of heart disease.

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We can attribute most of these positive effects to a compound found in most plants – including cacao – called polyphenol. Among these polyphenols are a particular group called flavanols that offer the plant many protective properties. As it turns out, they also have a similar effect in human beings when we consume them.

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Flavanols are bitter on our taste buds, so if you like those kinds of foods you’re in luck. They’re also notably present in many other plant-based foods and beverages that are good for your health, such as green tea. The higher flavanol concentration, the more bitter the food – and the better it is for you.

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As a result, the connection between bitter and beneficial persists in dark chocolate, because it has more flavanols included. In addition, flavanols are widely considered an antioxidant, which you can also find in superfoods like blueberries. However, it’s worth noting that research in recent years disputes the validity of this claim.

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Our bodies do produce their own antioxidants, which protect against waste products our cells create called free radicals. More antioxidants can be introduced into our bodies by eating foods rich in them. And some believe that’s what flavanols are, but an alternative suggestion has also been posited. This suggests that they’re actually mildly toxic.

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That might be a little misleading, though, as the term “toxic” suggests harm. But in this case, it’s the opposite. Indeed, by adding small amounts of toxicity to our bodies, flavanols might be nudging our systems into releasing more antioxidants naturally. Either way, the results are similar and subsequently we get all kinds of health boosts.

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Additionally, in recent years the media’s abuzz with talk that chocolate is great as a breakfast. You see, the effects of chocolate on the body have been studied for a long time. Yet its effect on brain function has been researched to a lesser extent. With this in mind, a team of scientists set about to do just that.

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Researchers took information from a test group of 968 people across the broad age spectrum of 23 to 98. The volunteers ate various amounts of chocolate on a regular basis. Then, the researchers asked them to take part in various neurological tests designed to measure such things as memory, reasoning and mental state.

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The researchers noticed a pattern and subsequently released their findings, which a lot of news agencies picked up on. Liz Moscow, who works for an advertising company called Sterling-Rice Group, has spoken on the subject. She discussed the matter with Food Business News and explained the experiment’s aims in brief.

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“There was a study that recently came out from Syracuse University re-touting the benefits of dark chocolate,” Moskow said. “Specifically on cognitive function – abstract reasoning, memory, focus.” The study grabbed so much attention because those who ate chocolate frequently performed better on tests across the board. But why should we eat chocolate specifically for breakfast?

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One theory is that the flavanols improve our blood flow so it gets to the brain quicker. It also provides us with a dose of the chemical serotonin, which reduces stress levels. This is a good combination for focusing concentration and enhancing memory, thus preparing us for the challenges ahead.

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Northumbria University conducted a similar study, researching the effects of hot cocoa. Among the 30 volunteers the cocoa drinkers performed faster and better at subsequent counting exercises. As Moskow has explained, “The thought was eating chocolate prepares you more for your workday. So what better day part to incorporate dark chocolate into your meal than breakfast?”

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In fact, the effect hot cocoa has on your brain is even better for people in their later years. In 2014 Dr. Scott A. Small published a paper in Nature Neuroscience detailing just that. The experiment studied the effects of high and low cocoa content drinks on 37 subjects in the 50 to 70 age bracket.

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Scans showed that high-content cocoa drinkers experienced better blood flow to the brain, particularly the areas governing memory. In fact, the results were quite astonishing. Dr. Small told The New York Times, “On average, the improvement of high-flavanol drinkers meant they performed like people two to three decades younger on the study’s memory task.”

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Curiously, chocolate isn’t the only sweet treat that’s thought to increase brain function. In 2016 Kyorin University in Tokyo hosted research under Yoshihiko Koga into the neurological effects of ice cream. Volunteers for the study were required to eat it as soon as they woke up and tests began afterwards.

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Ice cream intake correlated to better mental performance on computer-based tasks compared to those who didn’t eat any. Professor Koga even repeated the experiment with cold drinking water to rule out the possibility that temperature was the catalyst. The water resulted in some improvement, but nowhere near the levels that ice cream produced.

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Study of the volunteers’ brain activity showed that those who ate ice cream in the mornings displayed more high-frequency alpha waves. This basically means that they appeared to be more alert and less irritable. Nevertheless, the results are contested by nutritionists like Reading University’s Katie Barfoot, who works as a nutritional psychology doctoral researcher.

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Barfoot said, “A possible explanation [for increased alertness] is the simple presence of consuming breakfast versus not consuming breakfast. Our brain needs glucose to function, and a high glucose meal will aid mental capacity considerably compared to a fasted brain. This, however, does not condone eating dessert for breakfast.”

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The debate is yet to reach a solid conclusion, but Moskow thinks chocolate breakfasts may become common in the future. “We predict that breakfast might start seeing brunch amuse-bouche chocolate cakes or brunch and breakfast restaurants incorporating a robust dessert menu,” she explained. It’s worth noting, though, that experts don’t advise chocolate binging. Moderation and controlled diet is the key.

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