If you're looking to improve your physical and mental health, science has no shortage of recommendations. Exercise more, about a million studies suggests. Quit multitasking. Eat more whole grains.
These are clearly all worthy findings and we'd do well to heed the advice, but let's be honest: you might dutifully go out and buy some quinoa, or sign up for that spin class, but none of these recommendations is exactly going to make you jump for joy.
But that might just change with a recent study by Australian nutrition researcher Georgina Crichton and colleagues. It analyzed data generated by the huge Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study, which has tracked lifestyle factors and health outcomes of nearly 1,000 people for decades. Between 2001 and 2006 that included gathering detailed information about the subjects' diets. What did Crichton's team find when they crunched the numbers?
The happiest health science news you'll read all day.
After careful analysis that controlled for other lifestyle factors, the team discovered that one utterly surprising food appeared to significantly improve mental function -- chocolate.
Yup, you heard that right. Not worthy but unexciting fiber or kale, but yummy, delicious chocolate. These scientists are actually recommending you eat more of one of the tastiest foods around.
Exactly what effects might more consumption of chocolate have? The team saw a connection between at least weekly chocolate munching and improved "visual-spatial memory and [organization], working memory, scanning and tracking, abstract reasoning, and the mini-mental state examination." In short, chocolate appears to make your brain work better.
And no, it's not just that clever people eat more chocolate. A follow-up study confirmed that more consumption of the sweet stuff led to improved cognitive function, not the other way around.
Why the brain loves chocolate
Why exactly does eating chocolate have such positive effects on our brains? No one is 100 percent sure and more research is planned, but the researchers offered some hypotheses to the Washington Post.
"Nutrients called cocoa flavanols, which are found naturally in cocoa, and thus chocolate, seem to have a positive effect on people's brains," notes the paper, citing several previous studies. "Chocolate, like both coffee and tea, also has methylxanthines, plant produced compounds that enhance various bodily functions," it adds.
Now don't go wild, folks
If this study offers chocolate lovers a free pass to enjoy their favorite indulgence without guilt, it shouldn't be taken as license to go overboard. "Of course chocolate intake should be considered within an overall healthy eating pattern," Crichton reminds those chocolate fans who might be tempted to let their enthusiasm run wild.
Still, even if this isn't a scientific permission to stuff your face with all the chocolate you can get your hands on, it's still a pretty sweet result (sorry, couldn't help myself). So go ahead, enjoy that naughty snack. It seems it's not all that naughty after all.