I’ll be honest, I’ve never bothered too much about chocolate consumption at Easter time. I love the crack of the chocolate egg shell after it’s been in the fridge and this year, I bought a chocolate ‘Easter Advent Calender’ which was supposed to start this week, but I’ve already finished it.
Having already consumed my regular Easter chocolate quota for 2014, I thought I’d seek out some advice from a dietitian about why chocolate (when consumed at regular intervals) is not good for your body, and how to make the best health choices around Easter. Fortunately, my office is right next door to Belinda Elwin, our specialist dietitian. I took the opportunity to ask her the hard questions about chocolate:
What is the history behind the Easter egg and do you know why people started eating chocolate at Easter?
The significance of the egg is that it symbolises new life and rebirth. In Christianity, the egg is a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection. It is said to represent the empty tomb of Jesus from which life is then born – alike Jesus arising from the grave. These customs were adapted from ancient pagan practices where the egg was used to celebrate the coming of spring and new life.
The rabbit is also representative of fertility, new life and procreation due to their prolific breeding. Over time, the symbol of the rabbit became accepted as the Easter bunny. Some cultures believed the Easter bunny mythically laid eggs. It is thought that this mythical bunny originated from Germany, known as the “osterhase”. German immigrants then introduced this tradition to America.
The chocolate Easter egg was first produced in Europe in the 19th century. Prior to this, game eggs or other materials (such as wood) shaped in to an egg would be decorated and handed out. The next trend was toy eggs, then marzipan shaped eggs and following this was chocolate. France and Germany spearheaded the production of these new confectionary eggs. Initially, production was slow until a method of getting the chocolate in to the moulds was developed. The chocolate was therefore introduced as yet another way to enjoy and celebrate the symbolism of the egg.
Chocolate gets a pretty bad wrap (excuse the pun) and we are told to limit the amount we eat. Why is that?
This is due to the high sugar, fat and energy (kilojoule or calorie) content of chocolate. Additionally, it is rather devoid of any nutritional value and if eaten in reasonable quantities, it can displace other important, more nutritious foods in our diet.
However, we don’t want to completely deprive you of chocolate! Particularly at times like Easter where it is nice to join in with the festivities. I and many other dietitians appreciate the qualities of chocolate just as much as the next person. The problem is that it is a very concentrated food so you don’t have to eat much at all to be receiving a significant sugar, fat and energy hit. In saying this, chocolate is commonly consumed in much larger quantities than is recommended and this can then contribute to factors that increase your risk of lifestyle related disease e.g. it can influence weight gain, cholesterol etc. This is why we emphasise enjoying in moderation and only sometimes.
What does chocolate contain that is not good for our bodies?
Sugar, fat and kilojoules are all necessary components for the functioning of our body. However, they are better in naturally found forms and in smaller amounts than what chocolate provides.
Sugar can often make up as much as 50% of chocolate! The fat content can also come close to this.
Also keep in mind that chocolate contains caffeine which some people are more sensitive to than others. If you drink coffee, tea and/ or coke during the day – you may want to take into consideration the amount of chocolate you consume also or you may struggle to sleep that night!
Is there anything of nutritional value in chocolate?
Chocolate is made from cocoa beans which have some antioxidants. Antioxidants potentially help to prevent heart disease and some cancers. This is why you may have heard individuals advocating for the consumption of dark chocolate in moderation – dark chocolate is particularly rich in catechins (an antioxidant). There are also other nutrients present in chocolate in varying amounts yet these are generally in only small quantities and can be obtained easily from other foods.
However, catechins and other antioxidants can be found in other food sources such as tea and vegetables. Or you could use cocoa as a drinking chocolate. These would be healthier alternatives that are lower in sugar and fat, particularly if you struggle with moderating your chocolate consumption.
At the end of the day, the occasional couple of squares of dark chocolate is fine and can help to provide some antioxidants/ satisfy a craving. Chocolate should not, however, be viewed as a health food.
If I was standing in the confectionary aisle at a supermarket, what would you suggest as a “healthier choice”?
For the reasons mentioned above, opt for a good quality dark chocolate or raw chocolate. In particular, avoid any with fillings like caramel and peppermint that are basically pure sugar and will bump up the kilojoule content whilst not being very kind to your teeth.
Do you have any tips for eating less chocolate? Once I get started, it’s tricky to stop…
For Easter, choose the packs of individual, mini eggs. This way you can limit yourself to a couple per day. If you struggle to stop, sometimes not having them in the house is the only way! So share the chocolate you receive with friends and family so it is not left in the cupboard to tempt you. It is common for people to think that they need to eat all of the chocolate in the house to get it out of the way so they can start afresh – this is really just yourself devising an “acceptable” way for you to eat it!
There are more tips in my blog ‘emotional eating’ which is also on the website.
Contact us for results focused nutritional advice
This article was written by our dietitian Belinda Elwin who is a Dietitians Association of Australia member and Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist.
If you have any questions relating to nutrition issues, contact us today to make an appointment. We‘ll provide you with a simple and effective routine targeted to your concerns.