February 04, 2017
Chocolate season is upon us: during the week of Valentine’s Day, a mind-blowing 58 million pounds of chocolate will be purchased. Not that we really need an excuse to indulge in the world’s most popular sweet, mind you – the average American eats nearly 10 pounds of chocolate annually. In the last decade or so, global studies have found numerous health benefits associated with chocolate consumption, including the power of antioxidants and flavanols, making it even easier to justify that daily truffle habit. But for maximum health benefits, be mindful of what time of day you sneak a snack. Eating chocolate before bed may disrupt sleep and cause other problems. It all comes down to what type and how much.
Chocolate contains caffeine and theobromine, both of which belong to a molecular group called methylxanthines. Theobromine and caffeine are both stimulants, increasing heart rate and blood flow. (It’s worth noting that these methylxanthines, especially theobromine, are what makes chocolate toxic to dogs; their bodies can’t metabolize methylxanthines efficiently, and too much can be fatal.) Consuming too much of these stimulants before bed can make it hard to fall asleep and reduce sleep quality overall. However, the amount of theobromine and caffeine varies greatly depending on the type of chocolate you’re eating. Generally, the darker the chocolate, the higher the concentration of these stimulants, with bitter varieties such as “super dark” and baker’s chocolate containing the most. Lighter chocolates, like milk and white, have a lower dose because they are “diluted” with sugar and milk. So while a serving size of milk chocolate before hitting the hay probably won’t cause you to toss and turn, an equal amount of dark chocolate could be a problem. A typical dark chocolate bar has the caffeine equivalent of about half a cup of coffee.
We all know that too much sugar can have nasty implications for your dental health. So how does chocolate stack up? Again, white and milk chocolates are cut with more sugar than dark. In one cup, or about 170 grams, of chocolate chips, white chocolate contains 100 grams of sugar, milk contains 87 grams, and dark contains about 84 grams. Chocolates containing filling like nougat or peanut butter have even more sugar. A Three Musketeers bar delivers a whopping 10 teaspoons of sugar, while a Dove milk chocolate bar offers about half that with 5.5 teaspoons. Surprisingly, there may be some positive associations between chocolate and dental hygiene. Some studies suggest that the antioxidants in dark chocolate may inhibit the growth of plaque-building bacteria. Since the jury is still out, it’s better to err on the side of caution: limit chocolate to an occasional
and always brush your teeth before bed.
It’s no coincidence that chocolates are associated with romance. Claims of its powers as an aphrodisiac date to the Aztec emperor Montezuma, who may have scarfed down straight cocoa beans to fire up his libido. Chocolate does contain two chemicals that are associated with arousal: tryptophan and phenylethylamine. However, the quantities found in chocolate are far too small to have a noticeable effect. It’s possible that
the stimulant effects of chocolate, such as increased heart rate, are similar to feelings associated with love and desire, there’s a psychological rather than physiological response. It probably helps when chocolate is a gift from the object of your affection and is part of a romantic gesture. If you’re considering chocolate in the boudoir to enhance the atmosphere, just keep in mind that too much of a good thing can lead to a not-so-romantic sleepless night.
Bottom line: the occasional chocolate before bed is fine in moderation. If you’re a fiend for the dark stuff, you won’t be able to eat as much as a milk
without feeling the sleep-disrupting effects. But people tend to eat less chocolate the darker it is, so unless you have really poor impulse control, it shouldn’t be a problem. Just don’t forget to brush your teeth.