By: Rachel Neifeld, RD, CDE, CDN
Does eating chocolate for a healthier pregnancy seem too good to be true? Not according to Yale researchers who found that this common indulgence reduced the risk of developing preeclampsia- a potentially life-threatening medical condition characterized by high blood pressure and protein in the urine of pregnant women. If left untreated, preeclampsia can cause seizures during pregnancy and lead to risky complications including induction of labor and cesarean section.
Theobromine- a compound in chocolate- was the star of this large study which found that increased intake of the chocolate compound was associated with a decreased incidence of preeclampsia. Women who consumed more chocolate during their first and third trimesters of pregnancy had much lower rates of preeclampsia, whereas women who did not report regular chocolate consumption were at higher risk. Nearly half of pregnant women who had normal blood pressure consumed greater than 1-3 servings of chocolate per week, while only about 35% of women with preeclampsia (high blood pressure) reported regular chocolate consumption.
Many other studies have focused on the antioxidant properties of dark chocolate which contains compounds called flavonols, a type of antioxidant found to have beneficial health effects including reducing blood pressure, triglycerides, and insulin resistance while raising “good” HDL cholesterol. Despite dark chocolate (usually higher than 65% cocoa) being associated with heart-healthy benefits, the Yale study did not differentiate between types of chocolate. Milk chocolate-lovers will be happy to know that risk of preeclampsia was reduced with greater consumption of any variety of chocolate (except white chocolate which does not contain cocoa solids). So does this mean that pregnant women should be adding a piece of chocolate cake and a half a chocolate bar to their daily diets? Not exactly.
When saturated fat and sugar are added to the processing of chocolate into pastries, candies, or cocoa mixes, those beneficial effects can easily be canceled out. If too much butter, refined sugar, and salt are consumed along with the chocolate, women will be at increased risk for excessive pregnancy weight gain, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.
Thankfully there are many ways to incorporate theobromine-rich chocolate into a pregnancy diet in moderation and without the unhealthy ingredients included in many commercial chocolate products. Once women try the antioxidant-rich dessert ideas below, their heart and developing baby will thank them for thinking outside the chocolate box!
- One of the best ways to reap the benefits of chocolate is by heating it up- when cocoa is heated, more antioxidants are released. Heat one cup of milk in a medium saucepan, add ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract then whisk in 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder. Add a dash of sugar for a sweeter treat; for fewer calories, try Stevia sweetener.
- Add cocoa powder on top of oatmeal, frozen yogurt, ice cream or in a smoothie. Cocoa powder contains all of the health benefits of chocolate but without most of the fat! Cornell researchers found that cocoa has nearly twice the antioxidants of red wine and up to three times those found in green tea, so aim for 1 tablespoon of the powder a day.
- Top cereal with theobromine-rich cocoa nibs, or add the nibs to a smoothie.
- Melt two tablespoons of dark chocolate chips or a square of at least 60% cocoa dark chocolate and dip strawberries or pineapple in the melted chocolate.
- Low-fat chocolate pudding made with cocoa powder and topped with slivered almonds provides just the right amount of creaminess and crunch, not to mention a great source of theobromine from the chocolate, calcium from the milk, along with some healthy unsaturated fats from the almonds.
- Low-fat ice cream or frozen yogurt options can be just as satisfying as full-fat versions, but with only half the calories. Top with berries, a dusting of antioxidant-rich cocoa powder, or a handful of chopped walnuts and/or almonds for an extra nutrient boost.
- Cut dates or figs in half and place dark chocolate chips in the centers- pop in the microwave for 30 seconds and indulge in sweet antioxidant bliss.
- Simply keep a dark chocolate bar that is more than 65% cocoa in the freezer or desk drawer and have 3 squares for a treat.
- To make an antioxidant-rich fudgy paste low in fat and added sugar, combine a splash of warm milk and a few vanilla Stevia drops to 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder. Stir together into a paste and add on top of oatmeal, frozen yogurt, parfaits, or anything else that could use a splash of chocolate!
- Audrey F. Saftlas, Elizabeth W. Triche, Hind Beydoun, Michael B. Bracken
Ann Epidemiol. Does Chocolate Intake During Pregnancy Reduce the Risks of Preeclampsia and Gestational Hypertension? Ann Epidemiol. 2010 August; 20(8): 584–591. doi: 10.1016/j.annepidem.2010.05.010
- Cornell Cooperative Extension