Chocolates and Diabetes

My friend always said, “happiness is an unexpected piece of chocolate”. I realize it’s true almost every day when I hear from my patients who so desperately crave for it. Historically chocolates were used for healing processes. Foods and beverages made from beans of the Theobroma cacao tree were consumed by humans since around 500 AD. The good news is even if you are working on managing your blood sugar levels, chocolates can be a part of your overall healthy diabetes-friendly diet. But before you jump and start incorporating chocolate into your meals, make sure you know the facts.  

Recently, flavonols – a subgroup of plant-derived phytochemicals flavonoids have gained increasing attention due to studies showing beneficial effects between dietary intake of flavanols and incidence of diabetes. Foods rich in dietary flavanoids have therefore been targeted as a potential dietary edge in the management of diabetes. Flavonoids in the cocoa plant may reduce insulin resistance by improving endothelial function by altering glucose metabolism and reducing oxidative stress. Antioxidant effects of cocoa polyphenols directly influence insulin resistance and in turn, reduce the risk for diabetes. 

Several types of chocolates are available. These include milk chocolate, white chocolate, dark chocolate, unsweetened chocolate, etc. Of these, dark chocolates are the ones that are diabetic friendly and can be used in controlled portions. 

What are the benefits of dark chocolates?

Dark chocolate is a good source of minerals such as iron, magnesium, and zinc. It is a rich source of antioxidants called flavonoids. The antioxidants help in the release of free radicals which would otherwise damage the cells causing oxidative stress. This oxidative stress is the main reason for metabolic disorders like Type 2 diabetes and cancers. Oxidative stress can also cause insulin resistance. Thus dark chocolate could also protect against insulin resistance state thereby helping to stabilize blood sugar levels. 

Many polyphenols including catechin and epicatechin in dark chocolate inhibit Alpha-glucosidase activity. These compounds inhibit the absorption of glucose from the intestine. Studies have shown that epicatechin increases insulin secretion and also helps in the regeneration of the damaged pancreatic beta cells. It improves endothelial functions and thus increases insulin sensitivity. Polyphenols in dark chocolate lower LDL or bad cholesterol levels and increase HDL that is the good cholesterol level. Polyphenols in dark chocolate may improve insulin sensitivity or how well insulin works in the body. This in turn may help control blood sugars.

Which chocolate is best for diabetes? 

Dark chocolate with more than 70% cocoa is the best for diabetics. Remember, it is the polyphenol-rich dark chocolate that contains antioxidants. So look for the percentage of cocoa. Chocolates with more than 70% cocoa are best to reap the benefits. Keep an eye on the sugar content of the chocolate. Try to keep the carbohydrate content in one chocolate to the maximum of 15 – 30 grams. 

Generally, diabetic chocolate is made by replacing some or all of the sugar content with an alternating source of sweeteners such as polyols, maltitol, and sorbitol. Choose such artificially sweetened chocolates with utmost care. Some sweeteners increase your sugar cravings and cause severe weight gain. 

What are the things you need to be careful about while choosing a chocolate?

All chocolates are not safe. Milk and white chocolate do not  have the same benefits as dark chocolate. Avoid other chocolate rich foods like choc chip cookies and muffins. They would cause alterations in blood sugars and weight gain. Beware of extra sugary ingredients. Avoid dark chocolate that has added sugars in the form of caramel, toffee, or other additives. Opting for chocolates with nuts like almond is a safer bet because they have the ability to slow the elevation of blood sugar levels. Consider using sugar free cocoa powder or cocoa nibs for a treat as they are a good source of iron and magnesium.