If your family went hunting for treats this Easter Sunday, you may have found a powerful nutrient hidden in an unexpected place: the chocolates. Not the cloyingly sweet milk chocolates, mind you, but the dark chocolates, which contain a treasure trove of nutrients.
Among these is magnesium, the underappreciated hero usually ignored in favor of its better-known cousins, calcium and iron. Magnesium works alongside calcium and phosphorous to create strong, healthy bones and proper nerve and muscle function. It is so important that a deficiency of magnesium can trigger muscle tension as well as spasms, cramps, fatigue and even migraines in some people.
In our bodies there are over 300 enzymes (special proteins that help trigger and regulate chemical reactions) that require magnesium to function. These include enzymes that help our bodies use proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Magnesium plays so many roles in the body that it is difficult to find a body system that is not affected by magnesium deficiency. Our heart and blood vessels, nerves, muscles, kidneys, glands, liver and brain all need magnesium to function.
For active people, magnesium may improve exercise performance, recovery and muscle strength. For moms and dads wrestling with fussy toddlers, magnesium helps maintain normal heart rhythm and reduces blood pressure by helping arteries relax. Magnesium even helps other important nutrients to work better. For example, it is essential to the function of Vitamin D, which means it affects calcium absorption and the function of many related hormones.
Don’t go overboard, though. All you need is one square of dark chocolate a day. You can get the rest from foods that are readily available in Beijing, such as kelp, tofu, nuts and seeds. The superstar here is kelp, a kind of seaweed that is one of the richest sources of dietary magnesium on the planet. Kelp is often served in Chinese restaurants as a cold dish, tossed with salt, vinegar and garlic (liangban haidai 凉拌海带).
In Beijing, magnesium-rich tofu is often served with meat or drenched in tongue-numbing chilli oil. It can, however, be made more kid-friendly. Try silken tofu, locally called nen doufu (嫩豆腐) or hua doufu (滑豆腐), drizzled with blackstrap molasses and served with a compote of stewed dried fruits. This can make a delicious breakfast for even the most steadfast of tofu skeptics.
Sesame seeds, another great source of magnesium, are frequently used in Chinese cooking. Sesame candy (zhimatang 芝麻糖) is a great substitute for ordinary candy and is available in most Chinese supermarkets. Other magnesium-rich local dishes are those that feature "yard-long beans" known as jiangdou (豇豆). Gongbao jiding (宫保鸡丁) is served with peanuts or cashews, but the more adventurous can try lesser-known dishes like stir-fried corn and pine nuts (yumi songren 玉米松仁).
Seaweed in the Easter basket would probably raise eyebrows, but next Easter, when you’re handing out chocolates, remember to make them dark. Alternatively, go local and give out some delicious, magnesium-rich sesame candy crunch or dark chocolate-covered almonds.
Got a question? Singaporean Olivia Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org) has an MSc in nutrition and provides nutrition counseling.