Chocolate cravings can be intense, but depriving yourself can sometimes make things worse. Instead of feeling out of control, try one of the six low-calorie recipes below that won't wreck your healthy diet. The best part? These cocoa-based recipes are sure to satisfy your tastebuds without leaving you feeling deprived.
"Cravings are complex, but most theories focus on two factors: Habit formation and the reward circuitry in our brain," says Samantha Cassetty, RD, nutrition and weight-loss expert. For example, if you always eat chocolate on your birthday or you read about chocolate cravings during your period, you'll likely form a mental association between those things. While this association can be strong, it's not impossible to break.
"In general, we crave chocolate because it tastes good and makes you feel good," says Jackie Newgent, RDN, culinary nutritionist and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook. When you eat chocolate, your brain releases "feel good" chemicals called neurotransmitters. "There's not just one component of chocolate that makes it crave-worthy; it's everything about it, including sugar, fat, cocoa compounds and mouth-feel," she says.
Since the amount of carbohydrates (especially sugar) and fats in today's packaged foods is way more than what nature originally provided (with the exception of breastmilk), foods with this makeup can signal reward circuitry in our brain that makes these foods more desirable, even if you're just "meh" about chocolate, Cassety says.
Are there real benefits to eating chocolate? Newgent says yes, especially when not transformed into overly sugary candy bar. "A daily, one-ounce piece of bittersweet chocolate can easily fit within most healthy eating plans," she says.
And since a higher percentage of cacao (cocoa) generally means a higher amount of flavanols, Newgent's recommendation is "the bitterer the better," or eating as high of an amount as you enjoy — ideally at least 70-percent cacao.
"Cocoa polyphenols are associated with an anti-inflammatory effect, which may be beneficial for reducing risk of cardiovascular disease," Newgent says. And, in addition to containing antioxidants, there are additional benefits to eating unsweetened chocolate. It may help reduce blood pressure, prohibit plaque formation in arteries, as well as boost mental performance and memory.
Though Dutch-process cocoa is usually darker and milder than natural cocoa powder, it's more processed, which reduces some of its potential health benefits, says Newgent. "I find the best all-around cocoa to use in recipes is natural, unsweetened cocoa powder."
While she's not loyal to a particular brand, she does prefer organic and fair-trade varieties. "Buying fair-trade can help make cocoa farming more sustainable since fair-trade producers follow environmental standards that help protect the ecosystem," she says. She also recommends purchasing dark chocolate with at least 70-percent or higher cocoa content, as the concentration of antioxidants is higher.
This mint-chocolate smoothie, developed by Newgent, is a nutrient-rich snack or meal replacement thanks to good-for-you ingredients. The prunes add natural sweetness, and potassium-rich, frozen bananas create a thick and creamy texture.
While the recipe works with and without the chocolate, toss in two tablespoons of cocoa powder for a bump in brain health as well as having a satisfying, low-calorie dessert option. In fact, older adults, who drank two cups of cocoa a day for 30 days, "had improved blood flow to parts of their brain needed for memory and thinking," according to researchers at Harvard Medical School.
The beauty of making chocolate bark at home is that it's entirely customizable to your preferences. Our version makes use of heart-healthy omega-3s from chia seeds and protein-rich pistachios. You can also add quinoa, almonds or coconut flakes.
And swap in dark chocolate chips for milk chocolate ones, since dark chocolate has more flavanols than milk chocolate. "Dark chocolate also is lower in sugar, which can make it a better choice for healthier recipes," Newgent says.
Keep those servings small, though (this recipe makes about 16 bite-size pieces and a serving is two pieces). For help in the self-control department, portion this recipe out into individual containers so you don't accidentally eat more than you need.
There's nothing wrong with going for something indulgent and enjoying some delicious chocolate every now and again. "It's part of learning to live a balanced life where food isn't just fuel, but a source of pleasure," Cassetty says. "Food is also connected to social situations, religious ceremonies, and more, so events will come up."
So if you have a celebratory event coming up, why not bring cupcakes with frosting that has a secret ingredient? It's made with just sweet potatoes and chocolate chips, eliminating the butter and added sugar of traditional frosting recipes but tasting just as decadent.
One cup of sweet potatoes provides almost half of your daily vitamin C needs as well as 400 percent of your recommended daily intake of vitamin A, says Cynthia Sass, NYC- and LA-based performance nutritionist. "Both are vital for immune function, lung, eye and skin health."
If you need more of a day-to-day chocolate indulgence, these bite-sized pumpkin peanut butter cups will do you right. Making them at home instead of buying them at the store means you can control what goes in them.
While this combo might sound odd at first, pumpkin and chocolate and peanut butter go surprisingly well together. Plus, pumpkin naturally sweet while being low in sugar and calories but high in fiber, iron and beta-carotene which is good for your eyes.
If you're dying for a sweet, cold treat, try these mocha chip ice pops that come in at just 75 calories per serving. The calories are low thanks to some clever swaps like almond milk for calorie-heavy dairy.
This frozen treat has six grams of protein thanks to adding protein powder to the mix. And if you're looking for that mid-afternoon pick me up, this recipe calls for instant espresso so you can get your caffeine fix all while indulging guilt-free — a way better option than one of those Starbuck drinks.
To make a low-calorie snack that also satisfies your chocolate craving, Dana Angelo White, RD, certified athletic trainer and cookbook author, suggests dipping fruit slices or segments, like clementines, apples or pineapple, in melted dark chocolate and topped with a sprinkle of coarse sea salt.
"Some of my other favorite desserts are chocolate covered strawberries," Newgent says. "Opt for lower calorie ingredients like berries, but don't sacrifice on the quality of the chocolate."