December 13th was National Cocoa Day—‘tis certainly the season for enjoying a nice cup of hot chocolate by the fire.
But cocoa is much more than just an enjoyable winter beverage. We’ve written about the incredible benefits of raw cacao in past articles—one team of researchers stated that cacao’s “health-promoting benefits are so remarkable that chocolate is being explored as a functional food.” Functional foods are those that can be applied as an acute therapeutic treatment for specific diseases and conditions.
And cacao’s therapeutic applications are abundant: studies have demonstrated that it has extraordinary antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capacities, increases beneficial bacteria levels in the gut microbiome, aids digestion, boosts cognition and protects the brain, optimizes oral health and protects tooth enamel, balances cholesterol, supports cardiovascular health and reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, heals hypertension, and much more.
If these benefits come as a surprise to you, remember that we’re not talking about conventional chocolate bars—it’s the raw, unprocessed cacao that offers real health benefits.
The sugar, milk products, and additives in the vast majority of chocolate products are completely counterproductive—so make sure you’re working with the real thing if you expect to enjoy the benefits of chocolate.
Researchers have added another impressive benefit to cacao’s roster: effective prevention and management of diabetes.
This comes as desperately needed good news, because type 2 diabetes has reached epidemic levels in the United States. It’s estimated that 30.3 million people in the United States have diabetes (roughly 10% of the population), and that an additional 84.1 million people (a staggering 34% of the population) are prediabetic…and the numbers are getting worse every year.
Let’s take a look at how cacao can help.
How cacao delays the onset of diabetes
First and foremost, it’s important to state that type 2 diabetes is, in the vast majority of cases, an entirely curable condition that does not require medication. This truth runs contrary to the experience of millions of Americans, who are told that they can only “manage” their condition with pharmaceutical drugs.
Nonetheless, the condition can be reversed through proper lifestyle (and a little help from functional foods like cacao). This is even more true of prediabetes—by making the proper lifestyle choices, you and your loved ones can easily prevent the condition from progressing into full-blown diabetes.
In order to understand why cacao should be a part of a diabetes-healing lifestyle, let’s start with an overview of how diabetes works.
Diabetes is essentially characterized by a malfunction of insulin and leptin activity in the body. Insulin is the hormone released by the beta cells in your pancreas; it regulates blood sugar levels by storing extra energy (glycogen) that would otherwise end up in the blood.
Leptin is the hormone released by the body’s fat cells; it regulates energy balance by letting you know when you’re full (it works in conjunction with ghrelin, the hormone that lets you know when you’re hungry.)
As prediabetes and type 2 diabetes develops, the body becomes desensitized to both insulin and leptin—this results in obesity, elevated blood sugar, and the resulting cell damage that accompanies these conditions. Researchers noticed that the pancreas’s beta cells are extremely sensitive to oxidative stress, and theorized that beta cell performance could be enhanced through the use of antioxidants.
Here’s where cacao comes in. A study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry showed that the antioxidant flavanols in cacao can lower obesity rates and increase the body’s ability to manage blood sugar, especially when combined with a high-fat diet.
Supplementary research has revealed that these cacao flavanols, especially one called catechin, strengthen beta cells and make them more resistant to oxidative stress by boosting mitochondrial function.
Optimal diet and lifestyle are primarily important, but cacao can help
This research is important for redefining the way we treat diabetes, and it gives us yet another reason to include raw cacao in our diets. It’s important to remember, though, that no single functional food is a magic bullet.
Pharmaceutical companies would like us to believe that diseases can be easily treated (or at least managed) with miracle pills—but our country’s skyrocketing rates of disease (and the sub-par quality of life that comes along with them) show us that those products are anything but miracle pills. Real healing requires commitment to optimal diet and lifestyle, and diabetes is no exception.
If you’re prediabetic, diabetic, or would just like to prevent the condition, raw cacao is a great ally for you—but the rest of your diet and lifestyle must be optimized, as well. Here are some principles to follow for establishing a diabetes-healing lifestyle.
- Eat plenty of soluble fiber (especially in the form of low-sugar berries, nuts, and cucumbers) and insoluble fiber (especially dark leafy greens).
- Lower your carbohydrate intake, especially packaged foods, refined flour products, and sugars. The majority of your carb consumption should be in the form of whole foods (especially vegetables and low-sugar fruits).
- Eat lots of healthy fats, such as coconut oil and olive oil, avocados, grass-fed butter, and raw nuts. As mentioned in the study data above, healthy fats heal cell mitochondria and increase the benefits of cacao’s flavanols.
- Exercise more often, drink plenty of pure filtered water or spring water, and make sure you’re getting enough sleep (ideally at least eight hours every night).
And as for how to integrate cacao into your diet: just purchase a high-quality raw cacao powder from any well-stocked grocery or health food store, and add it to smoothies. You can even use raw cacao and almond milk to make a healthy hot chocolate to enjoy on a cold winter’s night.