A simple (and healthy) treat for a complicated creature

Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants and therefore good for us in moderation.

Dark chocolate has 12 times the antioxidant value of blueberries, according to US research.
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The British television presenter and lifestyle coach shares her views on health and nutrition. Women are complex (so says the man in my life); I choose to take that as a compliment. Hormonally, we are certainly more complicated and our nutritional needs ebb and flow. Or, to put it another way, there is not a woman out there who doesn't understand the need for chocolate at certain times.

Luckily for us, cocoa is riding high in the functional food stakes. "Functional" means simply a food that is particularly dense in nutrients, either naturally or by processing, thus lessening the need for supplements. So, not only can chocolate be a justifiable part of your diet: you are making life simpler to boot. What is not to like? The story of chocolate started long ago with the indigenous people of South America, and it wasn't just the women who were enjoying it: ancient Aztec kings would drink up to 10 cups of cocoa-water a day, hoping it would confer virility and immortality. While chocolate is sadly unable to perform such miracles, a discovery on the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama made researchers sit up and take note.

Only 49 of the 378 islands are inhabited by the fiercely independent Kuna tribe, who maintain their language, customs and culture and a very simple diet - and are therefore ripe for comparative study. According to a study published in the American Journal of Nutrition, "obesity, diabetes and hypertension are relatively rare among Kuna Indians, a population of Amerinds living in the San Blas Island chain off the cost of Panama, who are known to ingest large amounts of cocoa".

However, you only need to do a web search on the islands to realise that they are one of the most beautiful places on earth, so perhaps that, too, might partly account for the strong constitution of the islanders. For those of us stuck in less inspiring climes, chocolate can be the ultimate pick-me-up. Cocoa-rich chocolate also has the ability to reduce blood pressure, since it contains nitric oxide, and it is believed by some that it may help with the internal hormonal balance. The darker the chocolate the higher the benefit: indeed, white chocolate (which contains no cocoa) was shown in similar studies to have no positive effect on blood pressure or insulin sensitivity.

Dark chocolate's primary benefit comes from flavonoids, a type of substance that falls under the umbrella of antioxidants. Blueberries (and other dark berries) are widely publicised for their antioxidant properties, yet according to the US department of agriculture, dark chocolate has 12 times the ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) value of blueberries. Given that many of the diseases we suffer from can be caused or aggravated by oxidant damage to our cells, it is becoming clear that those Aztec kings may have been on to something. At the very least, swapping the expense of anti-ageing creams for a little dark chocolate would be a welcome exchange in most household budgets.

But before you go and vacuum up the leftovers of a box of chocolates, a word of caution: while the nutrient value of cocoa is high, so is the calorie content. It takes a lot of chocolate to have a big effect, and chocolate is a calorie-dense food. Studies have used about 3½ ounces (100g) of dark chocolate each day to determine its benefits. That translates into about 400 calories. So, even though the fat in good quality chocolate does not increase the bad HDL cholesterol, the calorie content means weight gain is almost a guarantee if you eat too much. Put it this way: if you were to attempt to justify a bar of chocolate a day for its health potential you'd soon find that extra 400 calories could result in a gain of almost a pound a week.

It all comes down to priorities; if you love your chocolate you need to sacrifice elsewhere. Increase your activity level, hit the gym or drop starchy carbohydrates from dinnertime and you can indulge in the food of the Aztec kings. You know what? I think it might just be worth it.