Monday, December 1, 2008

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates…

What's the first thing you turn to when you end a long relationship? Or when you’re pretty sure you just failed your midterm? Or when you have two papers due in an hour? I’m sure a few would immediately say their moms or their best friends. But let’s be honest. We take a trip to Wawa and buy the biggest bar of chocolate we can find. Throughout history, chocolate has been considered a mood-booster. The Aztecs even believed that it had the same effects on the body as falling in love. Well, they weren’t too far off.

Every year, lovers around the world indulge in nature’s greatest gift to mankind. Last Valentine’s Day, over 35 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate were sold, bringing in over $1 billion. This extraordinary figure is a result of the universal love of chocolate. In fact, in a recent survey, most women said that they preferred chocolate over flowers on Valentine’s Day, especially women over 50 (so guys, take note). Even if you find yourself alone on Cupid’s day, chocolate can easily replace a significant other. It isn’t an aphrodisiac, but it does trigger the brain’s production of natural opiates. What those love-struck Aztecs were feeling was the effects of phenylephylamine, the same hormone that the brain triggers when you fall in love. Chocolate also has a decent amount of caffeine—enough to perk you up, but not enough to leave you feeling shaky. In addition, this addicting comfort food stimulates endorphin production, giving a feeling of pleasure, and contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant. Cocoa even contains cannabinoids, substances that mimic the effects of marijuana. But don’t get excited. A 130-pound person would have to eat 25 pounds of chocolate all at once to get the effect of marijuana. And I’m pretty sure heart disease would set in before that happened.

But maybe not. Chocolate has an undeservedly bad reputation as a “guilty pleasure”. Chocolate actually contains natural antioxidants called flavonoids, which can help prevent heart disease and lower blood pressure. It only takes 40 grams of milk chocolate to obtain the same amount of antioxidants as a glass of red wine. Dark chocolate is even more beneficial, containing almost as many antioxidants as a cup of black tea. But a warning to chocoholics: don’t go thinking that you can stuff your face with chocolate and not feel guilty. Trust me; I’ve already tried it. Chocolate is a pretty high-calorie food, so although it’s a good idea to incorporate it into your daily diet, make sure you create room for it. You only need about half of a dark chocolate bar’s worth of antioxidants to receive the benefits, so don’t go overboard. And don’t try to trick yourself this winter into thinking that a cup of hot chocolate is doing you some good. Hot chocolate only has about half of the antioxidants of milk chocolate because of its dilution. But hey, after a long day, throw some marshmallows in and just enjoy. In addition to antioxidants, one study even found that a specific substance in cocoa helps the body process nitric oxide, which contributes to healthy blood flow and blood pressure.

For those of us who aren’t fans of technicalities, let’s sum it up: chocolate relieves anxiety, increases energy and alertness, provides antioxidants, reduces pain, and provides a feeling of pleasure. So who even needs a significant other? If you find out that your roommate is now dating your ex-girlfriend, who’s also actually sleeping with your current girlfriend, don’t get upset. There’s always chocolate.

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