One of the most commonly used pregnancy handouts suggests that women reduce or eliminate chocolate from their diets while pregnant. But chocolate is high on the list of very most desired foods by many pregnant American women. Extremely so. Interestingly, pregnancy chocolate love seems to be less strong in Europe and in many other countries. What’s the story here?
Recent research into dark chocolate has uncovered a variety of health benefits, including lowering blood pressure and raising levels of antioxidants that seem to protect against heart disease, aging, and some cancers. Some research suggests that it can lower “bad” cholesterol, lower weight, and improve the mood.
Perhaps pregnant European women don’t desire chocolate as much because their diets are already higher in beneficial flavenoids and other polyphenols. These compounds are also present in many fruits, vegetables, teas, and red wine (but no wine now!).
Apart from the health benefits of chocolate, what are the concerns?
Caffeine – We know that too much caffeine is not healthy for mom or baby, and can lead to increased risk for miscarriage and preterm labor. Some studies have detected a possible increase in SIDS risk with as little as four cups of coffee a day during pregnancy. Research suggests, though, that low-to-moderate caffeine intake is probably fine. What is a moderate amount of caffeine? The March of Dimes (“When a baby cries, we answer it with research.”) has set their safe level at less than 300 mg per day. A cup of coffee might have 120 mg or so (depending on how it is brewed). A 12-ounce can of Diet Pepsi has 36 mg, Pepsi One has 55.5 mg. A cup of green tea has about 15 mg; hot cocoa has 14 mg; and an ounce of milk chocolate has a caffeine equivalent of about 6 mg. A Hershey bar is 1.55 ounce. Chocolate lovers, do the math.
Heartburn – We know that chocolate contains theobromines, substances that relax the stomach “lid” sphincter that, when tight, helps stop acid from sloshing up to cause heartburn. Later in pregnancy, heartburn is common. Mothers plagued by this may want to do everything they can to tighten that sphincter, even eliminating chocolate. But from my perspective as a pediatrician, they can decide how to balance their own pleasure and pain.
Fetal Growth – One study from Poland, published in the Polish Journal of Veterinary Science in 2003, looked at the effects of feeding large amounts of chocolate to pregnant mice. These happy mice each ate the mouse-equivalent of 4 ½ Hershey-sized, 1.55 ounce chocolate bars every day. The leg lengths of the baby mice of the chocolate gorged mothers were shorter than those of their peers.
But wait? Perhaps you have heard that chocolate, though healthy for humans, can be toxic to dogs and to some other pets. This is true. Dogs are not able to deal well with the theobromines in chocolate. Cats do a much better job, but can’t take chocolate as well as humans. How do mice compare to humans when it comes to chocolates? Current evidence is scant and somewhat contradictory. Some websites even suggest leaving M&M’s as mouse poison (where the dog can’t reach). But, to be safe, let’s assume chocolate is healthy for mice. I think it probably is.
This would suggest that too much of a good thing is no longer good. Consider, 4 ½ of these chocolate bars daily (200 grams of milk chocolate) would also be more than a 1000 calories from chocolate daily – not much contributing to a balanced and varied diet.
Dark chocolate is richer in beneficial nutrients, but also richer in the bioactive compounds that raise concerns. Our family’s practice is to have a large bar of Organic Dark Chocolate in the house, and to break off two or three squares a day to satisfy chocolate cravings, sample the health benefits, but stay within an amount that is safe and sane.
Three satisfying squares add up to less than 18 grams of fine dark chocolate, about 78 calories, and a luscious treat.
Chocolate during nursing will add another chapter to this tale.
Read More from: Eating for Two: A Guide to Mother’s Nutrition during Pregnancy
Eating for Two: Part 1 – Pregnancy A Special Time
Eating for Two: Part 2 – Folate and Iron
Eating for Two: Part 3 – How Much Folate Do You Need?
Eating for Two: Part 4 – The Gift of Iron
Eating for Two: Part 5 – Vitamin B6 and Iodine
Eating for Two Part 6 – Zinc
Eating for Two: Part 7 – Niacin, Riboflavin, Thiamin, Pantothenic Acid, and Omega-3
Eating for Two: Part 8 – Not Found in Most Prenatal Vitamins!
Eating for Two: Part 9 – Calcium!?
Eating for Two: Part 10 – Calories
Eating for Two: Part 11 – Liver
Eating for Two: Part 12 – Chocolate
Eating for Two: Part 13 – Eating for the Future