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Fight Disease with Antioxidants…Healthy Chocolate!

We mentioned antioxidants earlier. Antioxidants are chemicals that combat the free radical molecules that are created every day inside our bodies—molecules that damage our systems. Three of the most important and effective sources of antioxidants might surprise you, and products that contain two or three in combination could very well change many of the commonly held beliefs about nutrition:

1. The acai berry
2. Blueberries
3. Unprocessed cocoa

Most of us have only an improper diet to blame for our obesity, low energy, mood swings and other health problems. Of course, this can be corrected by changing what we eat, and by consuming more of the foods listed above.

The acai (ah-sah-EE) berry is an excellent source of vitamin A, which is vital for good vision, growth, skin health and reproduction. 100 grams, or roughly 3.5 ounces, of acai has an ORAC rating of about 5,500 units. ORAC, (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) is the unit by which antioxidants are measured. The recommended daily consumption of Antioxidants is between 4,000 and 5,000 ORAC units.

Consuming 5,000 ORAC is the equivalent of eating seven to 10 servings of any combination of fruits and vegetables. . Acai is far ahead of the other fruits in its capacity to absorb free radicals in the human body.
Dr. Nicholas Perricone, a clinical and research dermatologist, named the acai to the top of his famous Superfood List. The unusually high levels of phyto-nutrients (nutrients that are beneficial to your health) and antioxidants are what make the acai berry stand out from all other fruits. Found primarily in the Northern Regions of Brazil, the acai is such an important source of nutrition, that individuals in the region drink almost as much acai juice as they do water. The acai fruit is also a complete protein, which means it contains every essential and non-essential amino acid.

Jiu-jitsu fighters and soccer players in Brazil often have a large meal of acai berry pulp before a competition. Why? Aside from being a perfect source of nutrition and carbohydrates, the high levels of antioxidants in the acai berry provide a dramatic increase in energy levels and stamina. Taken on a regular basis, the acai berry strengthens the immune system to the point where the body easily handles infections and disease. This frees up even more energy for other uses.

The acai berry contains a natural combination of antioxidants, essential fatty acids, amino acids and phytosterols. Amino acids work together to help your body function better, process food more easily, and burn fat more efficiently. It is literally one of the best things you can put into your body to keep it healthy. And when your body is healthy and well-balanced, it is much easier to reach an ideal body weight.
The acai berry contains enzymes and other vital nutrients that aid in the digestion process. A healthy digestive system is not plagued with such challenges as acid reflux and other similar ailments. Acai also contains a significant amount of fiber, which helps your digestive tract process food.

Packed with antioxidant phyto-nutrients called anthocyanins, blueberries neutralize free radical damage done to the collagen matrix of cells and tissues—unchecked, this damage can lead to cataracts, glaucoma, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, peptic ulcers, heart disease and cancer. Anthocyanins, the blue-red pigment found in blueberries, improve the integrity of support structures in the veins and the entire vascular system. Anthocyanins have been shown to enhance the effects of vitamin C, improve capillary integrity, and stabilize the collagen matrix (the ground substance of all body tissues). They work their protective magic by preventing free-radical damage, inhibiting enzymes from clinging to the collagen matrix, and directly cross-linking with collagen fibers to form a stable collagen matrix.

While wine, particularly red wine, is touted as a cardio-protective substance (a good source of antioxidant anthocyanins), a recent study found that blueberries deliver 38% more of these free radical fighters than red wine.

In this study, published in the August 2003 issue of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, researchers found that a moderate drink (about 4 ounces) of white wine contained .47 mmol of free radical absorbing antioxidants. Red wine provided 2.04 mmol, and a wine made from high-bush blueberries delivered 2.42 mmol of these protective plant compounds. (October 1, 2003) Pterostilbene, (pronounced TARE-oh-STILL-bean), a powerful antioxidant compound found in blueberries—already known to fight cancer—may also help lower cholesterol.

In a study using rat liver cells, scientists at the USDA Agricultural Research Service compared the cholesterol-lowering effects of pterostilbene to those of ciprofibrate (a lipid-lowering drug) and to those of resveratrol. Resveratrol is an antioxidant found in grapes that has a chemical structure similar to pterostilbene, and has been shown to help fight cancer and heart disease.

The USDA based their comparison on each compound’s capacity to activate PPAR-alpha (short for peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha). The PPARs are a family of receptors on cells all throughout the body that are involved in the absorption of compounds into cells for use in energy production. PPAR-alpha is crucial for the metabolism of lipids, including cholesterol. Pterostilbene was as effective as ciprofibrate and outperformed resveratrol in activating PPAR-alpha (January 14, 2005). The take-away message: Turn up your cholesterol burning machinery by eating more blueberries, grapes and cranberries.
In animal studies, researchers have found that blueberries help protect the brain from oxidative stress, and may reduce the effects of age-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Researchers found that diets rich in blueberries significantly improve both the learning ability and motor skills of aging rats—essentially reversing the cognitive aging process.

In addition to powerful anthocyanins, blueberries contain another antioxidant compound called ellagic acid. Ellagic acid blocks metabolic pathways that can lead to cancer. In a study of 1,271 elderly people in New Jersey, subjects who ate the most strawberries (another berry that contains ellagic acid) were three times less likely to develop cancer than those who ate few or no strawberries. In addition to containing ellagic acid, blueberries are high in the soluble fiber pectin, which has been shown to lower cholesterol and to prevent bile acid from being transformed into a potentially cancer-causing form.

Cocoa is King

Believe it or not, dark chocolate can be one of the healthiest foods you will ever eat. The key is that it must be processed correctly to be beneficial.

Cocoa powder is rich in the polyphenols, mainly flavonoids—flavan-3-ols, flavonols (epicatechin and catechin), and procyanidins. Cocoa is from the plant Theobroma cacao.

Cocoa butter accounts for 50% of the weight of the cocoa bean, with the main fatty acids being stearic and palmitic (saturated fats), oleic (the one in olive oil, a monounsaturated fatty acid) and linoleic acid (polyunsaturated).

Even though we are taught that saturated fats are harmful to the cardiovascular system, the saturated stearic acid fat from the cocoa bean does not elevate blood cholesterol like other saturated fatty acids. Fat from cocoa butter is not absorbed well by the intestinal tract, and is considered ―neutral‖ in terms of its effect on weight gain and impact on cholesterol. Research shows that these cacao fatty acids may modify LDL-C, making it more resistant to oxidation.

The cocoa bean also contains some insoluble and soluble fiber, which contributed to lower cholesterol levels. Fiber is extremely beneficial in lowering colon cancer rates, improving sugar metabolism and preventing constipation.

The cocoa bean contains several minerals and vitamins which are useful. Dark chocolate contains magnesium, which is necessary for muscle relaxation, nerve conduction, energy production and bone and teeth development and overall health. Magnesium deficiencies intensify the effects of PMS (premenstrual syndrome). Copper—found in rich supply in dark cocoa—is involved in many of the chemical processes in the body.

Dark cocoa also contains high levels of potassium, which is vital for cardiovascular health.
The flavonoids in cocoa are the flavan-3-ols, flavonols (catechin and epicatechin; procyanides), and proanthocyanidins. Pound-for-pound, dark chocolate has the highest concentration of these flavonoids of any food—even more than acai or blueberries. Cocoa is loaded with a variety of phyto-nutrients, making it very high in antioxidants.

Cocoa rates as one of the highest whole foods on the ORAC scale—even higher than green tea, acai, blueberry and red wine, which have all been shown to be very effective antioxidants.

Cocoa can stop the oxidation of the LDL-C cholesterol as discussed previously, resulting in reduced cardiovascular damage. Cocoa flavonoids can also increase the production of good cholesterol (HDL), which mops up the harmful fats from the blood vessels. Cocoa flavonoids discourage platelets from forming harmful clots and damaging heart muscle blood vessels. The flavonoids in cocoa help the blood vessels dilate more easily, allowing more blood flow to the heart (nitric oxide (NO) activation). This same principle is applicable to insulin-stimulated blood sugar uptake, resulting in improved diabetic control. Cocoa has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties, stopping the inflammatory process (cytokines) from damaging the body.
In several studies, dark chocolate has been shown to decrease blood pressure, which in turn
decreases the damage to heart vessels. Cocoa is thought to be a renin-angiotension enzyme inhibitor, which is the same principle on which many blood pressure pills work (ACE inhibitors).

There have also been studies showing that dark cocoa can help reduce dental cavities, decrease the plaque on teeth, and prevent gum disease.

Research in dementia has shown that the progression of the condition can be combated by the same antioxidant principles we have been discussing. Several vitamins, particularly vitamin E and certain B-vitamins, have been used to help with dementia. As noted previously, cocoa has the same capacity to decrease free-radical damage, limiting dementia and improving memory.

Dark chocolate improves the body’s ability to use insulin and stops the insulin-resistance condition that can lead to diabetes. Cocoa can increase nitric oxide levels to help with insulin-stimulated uptake of blood sugars. The increase in nitric oxide also improves the health of the blood vessels, limiting the damage of diabetes on the small vessels.

Cocoa has been found to help with liver damage, and can repair liver cells after long-term exposure to alcohol.

What exactly is in cocoa that provides so many benefits? To hear one tout its benefits, cocoa almost sounds like ―snake oil‖ sold in traveling caravans. The truth is that cocoa is a complex food. There are over 300 different chemical components found in cocoa. The cocoa bean is the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree, and the beneficial effects are wholly determined by how it is grown, handled, and processed.

In general, cocoa contains Cocoa butter (a neutral fat consisting of oleic, stearic, and palmitic fatty acids), minerals (copper, magnesium, potassium, iron, zinc, and calcium), theobromine and trace amounts of caffeine, and mood-enhancing chemicals (PEA, tyramine, tryptophan, and serotonin). This is just an abbreviated list of the chemicals found in cocoa.

In addition to the main chemicals which provide a majority of the health benefits, cocoa also contains polyphenols. Polyphenols are a large class of compounds that provide the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of fruits and vegetables. One of the most important classes of polyphenols are flavonoids. Flavonoids can be further broken down into smaller families –flavanones, flavones, flavonols, flavanols (flavan-3-ols), anthocyanins and isoflavones.

Within the flavanol family exist powerful stand-alone (―monomeric‖) chemicals known as epicatechins and catechins, as well as compound chemicals (―oligomeric‖) known as procyanidins. These substances are the true backbone of the health properties derived from cocoa.

Epicatechin is the predominant polyphenol in cocoa, and accounts for a majority of the health benefits that scientists attribute to this wonderful food. Cocoa is one of the most polyphenol-rich foods available on Mother Earth. However, the processing and manufacturing of the cocoa bean has an enormous impact on the levels of these substances that are actually contained in the final product.

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