Red, pink and white hearts are showing up everywhere, along with teddy bears, love notes and, of course, chocolate. Rich and indulgent, chocolate is usually considered bad for you, but certain kinds of chocolate may actually provide health benefits when consumed in moderation. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner during Heart Health Month, let’s take a closer look at this favorite treat.
Is Chocolate Good for You?
Is it really possible that something as tasty as chocolate can be good for you? The answer is a qualified yes, thanks to the rich nutrients found in cocoa beans. Cocoa is loaded with flavonoids and other nutrients, including the following:
Flavonoids and Antioxidant Power
Flavonoids are a nutrient that helps plants repair damage and protects them from environmental toxins. This antioxidant power benefits us when we eat foods that contain flavonoids. Antioxidants help your body’s cells resist damage from free radicals. Normal bodily processes and environmental contaminants contribute to the formation of free radicals, which can damage the body if there aren’t enough antioxidants to neutralize them. Eating foods with high levels of flavonoids is a great way to provide the antioxidants your body needs to defend itself. Flavonoids are found in a variety of foods, including chocolate, fruits, vegetables, tea and red wine.
Flavanols in Chocolate
The main kind of flavonoid in chocolate are called flavanols. These plant nutrients have a number of potential health benefits including:
- Antioxidant qualities
- Lowering blood pressure
- Improving blood flow
- Making blood platelets less sticky
Types of Chocolate
Unfortunately for chocolate lovers, not all chocolate has equal health benefits. Cocoa itself is high in flavonoids and other nutrients, but it also has a pungent, strong taste. As it’s processed to make it more palatable, it loses nutrients. Added ingredients also change the taste and health benefits of chocolate. In general, the more processed the chocolate and the more extra ingredients it contains, the fewer health benefits it offers. This is why dark chocolate is better for you than milk chocolate. You should view highly processed chocolate with lots of added ingredients like sugar and oil as a fat or sweet rather than a source of antioxidants.
Possible Health Benefits of Chocolate
Minimally processed dark chocolate offers a number of potential health benefits. Here are a few of the possible ways eating dark chocolate in moderation can benefit your health:
- Lowered risk of atrial fibrillation – Irregular heartbeats like atrial fibrillation can lead to additional problems like stroke and heart failure. Eating small amounts of dark chocolate may help reduce the risk of atrial fibrillation by as much as 20 percent.
- Antioxidant activity – As discussed above, antioxidants are important for protecting the body from damage caused by free radicals. Raw, unprocessed cocoa beans are one of richest sources of these powerful antioxidants.
- Lowered blood pressure – Flavanols can help stimulate the lining of the arteries to produce the gas nitric oxide. One of the functions of this gas is signaling the arteries to relax, thus reducing resistance to blood flow. This in turn helps lower blood pressure.
- Increased HDL and lowered LDL – Dark chocolate may help increase levels of HDL or good cholesterol while lowering levels of LDL or bad cholesterol. It also reduces the amount of oxidized LDL, which is LDL that has reacted with free radicals. Oxidized LDL becomes reactive and can damage other tissues, but the antioxidants in chocolate help protect against such damage.
- Lowered risk of cardiovascular disease – Thanks to the protective nature of antioxidants against oxidized LDL, chocolate may reduce the amount of cholesterol buildup in the arteries and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
- Protection from the sun – A surprising potential benefit of eating dark chocolate is that it may provide some protection against the sun. Flavanols promote blood flow to the skin, increase skin density and hydration and help protect against sun damage.
- Improved brain function – The increased blood flow that chocolate helps promote is also good for your brain and may improve brain function. The caffeine and other natural stimulants found in chocolate can also provide a short-term boost to brain function.
How to Choose the Healthiest Chocolate
Because not all chocolate is equally healthy, it’s important to choose chocolate carefully. Keep the following in mind when looking for the healthiest chocolate:
- Cocoa content – Higher levels of cocoa are better for your health because they contain more flavanols. Look for chocolate with 70 percent or higher cocoa content.
- Processing – Less is more when it comes to processing. Look for chocolate with minimal processing; for example, choose cocoa powder that hasn’t gone through Dutch processing.
- Ingredient list – Added ingredients can detract from the health benefits of chocolate. The ingredients are listed by abundance so the product contains the most of the first item in the list and the least of the last item. Look for chocolate where cocoa is the first item in the ingredient list.
Indulging in Chocolate
Small amounts of dark chocolate may provide great health benefits, but overindulging in any kind of chocolate isn’t healthy. Check the serving size and keep your daily chocolate consumption to less than 10 grams of added sugar. If you know you won’t be able to stop eating chocolate once you start, it’s better to not buy any in the first place.
As chocolate starts showing up in greater quantities at this time of year, it’s exciting to know that in small amounts dark chocolate can provide health benefits for you and your heart. Choosing the right type of chocolate and eating it in moderation allow you to enjoy this delicious treat and share some with your sweetheart!
At South Louisiana Medical Associates, our team of physicians work together to help patients make healthy choices about what they eat, providing personalized support for patients with dietary needs and eating concerns.