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Chocolate and health

Is there such a thing as heart healthy chocolate?

There is some evidence that chocolate and health - specifically dark chocolate - can have a positive link. For chocolate lovers this is great news.

First, a Caveat

All chocolate, whether dark or not, contains sugar. In spite of the information on this page, bear in mind that the dangers of sugar may far out-weigh any benefits you can derive from eating chocolate. For more on the dangers of sugar, go here. Further, it is likely that the beneficial benefits of chocolate can be derived from other sources without the added sugar.

For those living with heart disease, the two reported heart health benefits of dark chocolate are:

  • Lowered blood pressure - studies on chocolate and health have shown that consuming a small amount of dark chocolate every day can reduce blood pressure in individuals with high blood pressure.
  • Lowered cholesterol - dark chocolate has also been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) by up to 10 percent.

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition the health benefits of chocolate are a result of the flavonoid content in the cocoa bean.

Flavonoids are natural compounds with antioxidant properties - flavonoids are also found in blueberries, red wine, and green tea.

In addition, chocolate stimulates endorphin production, which gives you a feeling of pleasure said to equal the runner's high a jogger feels after a long run (maybe that's why so many people crave it). It also contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant, plus theobromine and caffeine, which are stimulants.

Chocolate and health benefits - not just wishful thinking

A study published in theAmerican Journal of Clinical Nutrition in March 2007 found that of more than 34,000 post-menopausal women who consumed the most flavonoid-rich food, 22 per cent had a lower risk of developing heart disease.

Chocolate was ranked as one of the top flavonoid-rich foods associated with a protective effect, along with bran, red wine, grapefruit, and strawberries.

Previous research in 2006 published in the Archive of Internal Medicine, found that men who consumed higher amounts of cocoa products (2.3 grams or .08 oz. or more per day) had a 50 per cent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, compared with men with the lowest consumption.

Another study on chocolate and health published in the July 2007 edition of theJournal of the American Medical Association found that a little bit of dark chocolate may help lower blood pressure. Researchers followed two groups of people with untreated high blood pressure for 18 weeks. Half got some dark chocolate every day while the other half received white chocolate. Those who were eating the dark chocolate saw a drop in their blood pressure. There was no change for the group who ate white chocolate. The bad news (if you are a chocolate lover), is it only took about 6 grams (that's .2 oz) of chocolate to achieve the results.

Yet another study in 2005, published in the journal Hypertension, revealed similar findings. This study used more chocolate per day. Researchers randomly assigned 20 subjects with high blood pressure to receive either 100 grams (3.5 oz.) a day of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate or 90 grams (3.2 oz.) per day of flavonoid-free white chocolate. The group receiving dark chocolate experienced a drop in blood pressure. Researchers also found that levels of low density lipoprotein (bad) cholesterol dropped by 10 per cent in the dark chocolate group.

Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health have said that those who eat chocolate and sweets up to three times each month (note: a treat, not an everyday occurrence) live almost a year longer than those who eat too much or those who stay away from junk food altogether.

Yer another study found that a substance in cocoa helps the body process nitric oxide (NO), a compound critical for healthy blood flow and blood pressure.

Finally, one study showed that flavonols (a specific subclass of flavonoids)- in cocoa prevent fat-like substances in the bloodstream from oxidizing and clogging the arteries, and make blood platelets less likely to stick together and cause clots.

Most of the studies on chocolate and health used no more than 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces) of dark chocolate a day to get the benefits.

Chocolate and health benefits - Not any chocolate will do

The more the chocolate is processed, the fewer flavonoids it retains. Of course this reduces its antioxidants and potential health benefits. Dark chocolate has the most flavonoids, almost four times as many as milk chocolate, and white chocolate has none. And you should know that the way that cocoa powder and chocolate syrups are manufactured removes most flavonoids.

When you feel the urge for some chocolate, read the list of ingredients on the label and choose chocolate that lists cocoa solids or cocoa mass first, not sugar. Choose chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa – 70 per cent or more.

Watch those calories. The average chocolate bar contains approximately 250 - 400 calories depending on the bar, and if it's a highly processed, sugar-coated chocolate bar - it's nothing more than empty calories and contains little in the way of cocoa or flavonoids. While we've shown there are some benefits to chocolate, a piece of fruit such as an apple with 50 - 60 calories still may be a better choice.

Enjoy a glass of milk with your chocolate? Some research shows that washing your chocolate down with milk could prevent the antioxidants being absorbed or used by your body.

How about red wine? Many people enjoy red wine with dark chocolate. Red wine is also a source of antioxidants.

Chocolate and heart health - some advice

Dark chocolate is still a source of calories and sugar, and should be enjoyed in moderation. Limiting yourself to a few small pieces of dark chocolate a week is a reasonable way to enjoy the benefits and pleasures of chocolate without overdoing it. Eating too much chocolate could lead to weight gain, which in turn could negate any potential chocolate and health benefits.

Chocolate doesn't take the place of medication. For example, Dr. Carl Keen, Professor of Nutrition & Internal Medicine at UCDavis cautioned that people shouldn't eat a couple of candy bars in place of taking their daily dose of aspirin. "We're not advocating that people consume flavonol-rich foods in place of aspirin," stressed Keen. Don't substitute chocolate for blood pressure or cholesterol medication.

Food for thought

An increasing number of high-quality organic and "fair-trade" chocolate bars are available in supermarkets and health food stores. Fair trade products (often coffee or chocolate) ensure that farmers in developing countries receive fair compensation for their goods, more than they would typically receive on the world commodity markets. Consider choosing these.

More and more research points to nutrition as the basis for good health and the cause of so much disease.

We believe we've been fed a lot of bad information about what's good for us and what's not.

We can't tell you what to eat, just make the strong suggestion that you do your own research, learn how politics, personal agendas and big business has created the climate that's lead to our sky rocketing rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other diseases.

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