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Chocolate After Menopause: Continuing the Love Affair

Chocolate After Menopause: Continuing the Love Affair Without Compromising Your Health

Anna Jessey

Your love affair with chocolate doesn't have to end at menopause. Unrestrained chocolate consumption can contribute to weight gain, high cholesterol and heart disease. However, a controlled indulgence may boost your physical and emotional well-being as you're going through this midlife transition. Cocoa, the ingredient at the heart of your favorite chocolate treats, contains compounds that may lower your blood pressure, ease stress and support the health of your heart.

Protecting Your Heart

After menopause, your risk of heart disease and stroke increases as your body's production of estrogen declines. According to a Harvard study published by the American Heart Association, or AHA, in August 2010, middle-aged and elderly women who ate a 20- to 30-gram serving of dark chocolate one to three times per month had a lower risk of heart failure than women who ate either less or more of this treat. Cocoa is rich in flavonoids, antioxidant compounds that promote healthy heart function. To maximize the benefits of chocolate, the AHA recommends eating high-quality dark chocolate that contains small amounts of sugar. When you're choosing chocolate, aim for products that include at least 30 percent cocoa.

Although cocoa is packed with antioxidants, chocolate is also dense in calories and fat. The authors of the AHA study caution that eating more than 20 to 30 grams of chocolate (about 1/2 to 2/3 of a candy bar) one to three times per month may increase your risk of heart disease. To reap the benefits of chocolate without jeopardizing your cardiovascular health, integrate small amounts of cocoa-rich dark chocolate into a diet high in fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, legumes, lean poultry, fish and soy products. Soy-based foods like tofu offer protein, calcium and phytoestrogens - compounds that may protect your heart by imitating the protective effects of estrogen.

Managing Stress

Along with the physical changes of menopause, many women in their 40s and 50s face increased stress at work, at home and in their personal relationships. If the mood changes, sleeplessness, hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause have you constantly on edge, an occasional indulgence in chocolate may offer a burst of sweet relief. Combined with a balanced, low-fat diet and daily exercise, satisfying your craving for chocolate once in awhile might help stabilize your moods.

In the October 2009 issue of the Journal of Proteome Research, scientists at the Nestlé Research Center in Switzerland report that eating a small serving of chocolate each day may lower your production of the hormone cortisol, which your body secretes during times of stress. Study participants showed a reduced production of stress hormones after eating the equivalent of one chocolate bar each day for 2 weeks. Although this amount of chocolate may exceed your cocoa budget, the results of the study suggest that a moderate indulgence may curb anxiety.

In addition to your occasional flirtation with dark chocolate, talk with your health-care provider about using daily exercise to ease symptoms and relieve stress. Walking, stair-climbing, hiking and other weight-bearing exercises can help you feel strong and balanced while maintaining your bone density. Stress-reducing activities like yoga and tai chi promote equilibrium and flexibility as you age.

Finding a Balance

Staying healthy after menopause requires balancing your body's changing needs. You may need lighter meals to prevent weight gain, more calcium-rich foods to protect your bones and more dietary fiber to promote a healthy heart and digestive system. On the other hand, your need to enjoy pleasurable, sensually gratifying experiences - like eating chocolate - doesn't disappear when your periods stop.

With so many demands on your time and attention, achieving balance means making selective choices in your activities, your dietary selections and your 'vices.' If chocolate is your favorite passion, make this nutritious food a priority when you're planning the occasional treat. Keep in mind that an ounce of dark chocolate containing 45 to 59 percent cocoa has 9 grams of fat and 152 calories. Reward yourself with a taste of rich, dark chocolate several times a month to maintain your weight and cardiovascular health while keeping your passion for the cocoa bean alive.


Sources:
American Heart Association: Moderate Chocolate Consumption Linked to Lower Risks of Heart Failure; August 17, 2010.
Journal of Proteome Research; Metabolic Effects of Dark Chocolate Consumption on Energy, Gut Microbiota, and Stress-Related Metabolism in Free-Living Subjects; F.P. Martin, et al.; 2009.
Nutritiondata.com: Candies, Chocolate, Dark, 45-59% Cacao Solids: 1 ounce. 
Womenshealth.gov: Menopause and Menopause Treatments Fact Sheet; September 28, 2010.

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