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Improving your heart and vascular health was never so easy
I see a lot of people steering clear of foods like oats and dark chocolate -the former because they fear the carbs, and the latter because it isn't packed with sugar.
What if I told you that oats and dark chocolate are two of the more healthy foods that you can eat? I eat them every day, for breakfast.
Here's how to combine to two into one tasty and healthy breakfast.
Firstly, let's do a quick update on their health benefits.
Oats slow digestion and lower blood sugar
Oats lowers your cholesterol and lowers your risk of a heart attack. In fact, The Food and Drug Administration allows the use of a health claim on food labels associating a reduced risk of coronary heart disease with the consumption of beta-glucan soluble fibre from whole grain oats.
Beta-glucan has been verified to slow digestion, increase satiety (the feeling of being full), and suppress appetite. This is why oatmeal is helpful if you are trying to lose weight and control hunger levels - due to its high water and soluble fibre content.
Beta-glucan can bind with cholesterol-rich bile acids in the intestine and transport them through the digestive tract and eventually out of the body.
Whole oats also contain plant chemicals called phenolic compounds and phytoestrogens that act as antioxidants to reduce the damaging effects of chronic inflammation that is associated with various diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
I have found that the biggest point of confusion with oats is simply the question of what kind of oats are best to buy.
The simple answer is to buy steel-cut oats, and soak them overnight. Steel-cut oats are best because they are the least processed. That's why they take longer to cook.
The least beneficial oats to buy are instant oats. These have been steamed and heat rolled into thin wafers, and often have added sweeteners and flavours. Check the packet carefully.
On the scale of "real food", steel-cut oats are real food and instant oats are factory food.
However, if instant oats are all you can get or all that your kids will eat, then they are better than other processed cereals. I sometimes buy packets of instant oats and put them into protein shakes.
Dark chocolate improves blood flow
Speaking of the scale of "real food" versus processed food, dark chocolate - unsweetened - I count as real enough food even though it contains sugar. Just as you might ask what oats to buy, you might not be sure what counts as "dark" chocolate.
Dark chocolate contains 50-90% cocoa solids, cocoa butter, and sugar, whereas milk chocolate contains anywhere from 10-50% cocoa solids.
Dark chocolate does not contain milk. White chocolate does not contain any cocoa solids and is made merely of cocoa butter, sugar, and milk.
Cocoa is rich in plant chemicals called flavanols. Flavanols have been shown to support the production of nitric oxide (NO) in the endothelium (the inner cell lining of blood vessels) that helps to relax the blood vessels and improve blood flow, thereby lowering blood pressure.
Flavanols have also been shown to increase insulin sensitivity in short term studies; in the long run, this could reduce the likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes. (I should have eaten more dark chocolate - I developed T2D 22 years ago!).
How about the "dose size" - how much should we / can we eat?
Studies suggest a daily chocolate intake of 6 grams (1-2 small squares) will achieve the types of benefits mentioned above. That's only about 35 ~ 40 calories surprisingly - negligible effect on your daily calorie intake. I'd usually eat double this amount, say 12 to 15g.
For the health benefits I am talking about in this post, buy at least 70% cocoa chocolate. Don't store it in the fridge, but in a cool cupboard - it will keep well for 2 years so don't worry too much about the official use-by date.
Hint: Cocoa is often treated with alkali, or "Dutch-processed", to improve the flavour and appearance. However, this causes a significant loss of flavanols. Natural cocoa, found in the baking aisle, retains the most flavanols.
Hint Hint: Instead of paying for a NOX drink before gym, enjoy a couple of squares of dark chocolate about 20 minutes before. The nitric oxide in dark chocolate does the same thing as the NOX drinks you are buying, but tastes a heck of a lot better. You'll work off the extra calories at gym.
How I eat oats and dark chocolate for breakfast
Each night I combine a combination of steel-cut oats and organic quinoa flakes into a bowl - about 5 dessert-spoons.
Then add full-cream milk (yes, I'm a full-cream person!) and a twist of salt and pepper. Place it in the microwave and heat it but don't let it boil. For me, this is 60 seconds.
Now mix in a satisfying amount of 70% organic chocolate drops, and stir a little. Then add a good couple of dessert-spoons of Greek yoghurt. Place in your refrigerator overnight.
The heating and cooling transform some of the fibre into resistant starch, which resists digestion in the small intestine and ferments in the large intestine. As the fibres ferment, they act as a prebiotic and feed the good bacteria in the gut.
In the morning, eat cool or reheat, according to your preference. I reheat.
You're all done. Enjoy.
I'm off to prepare tonight's bowl for the fridge.
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