Why Cocoa Is Good for Your Heart

Medically reviewed in December 2018

Photo Credit: Amanda Mathson

According to scientific research, cocoa is more than just a hot drink for a cold day.

Science has proven that a food as indulgent and delicious as cocoa is actually good for you.

For centuries, many cultures have enjoyed cocoa as a delicacy, and a rich and soothing treat. Its Latin name, Theobrome, translates to “food of the gods.” It was so highly valued by the ancient Aztecs that it was used for currency, considered a gift to the gods and enjoyed by the elite as a medical remedy.

In the past five years, a number of research studies not funded by the cocoa industry have demonstrated that the powder from the roasted cacao bean offers cardio-protective health benefits, including positive effects on gut health, which we now know is connected to our heart health.

Compelling research has shown the association between cocoa consumption and decreased cardiovascular risk factors. These include reduced blood pressure, insulin resistance, and inflammation, along with improved cholesterol levels, blood vessel health, and artery function.

Decreased inflammation and oxidation
These impressive health outcomes are attributed to the many active substances in cocoa. The most compelling evidence, however, suggests that the flavonoids in cocoa provide the most beneficial effects. Flavonoids are an active family of compounds found in plants that help to decrease inflammation and oxidation. They also help to protect our cardiovascular system.

To better understand the effects of flavonoid-rich cocoa on cardiovascular health 1100 adults were analyzed. Some were healthy, some had cardiovascular risk factors, and other had diabetes or coronary artery disease. Those who consumed cocoa for 4 weeks showed significant decreases in systolic blood pressure, “bad” cholesterol, and insulin resistance, as well as significant increases in the function of blood vessels and “good” cholesterol.

Mood and mental sharpness
Can cocoa elevate your mood and improve your mental alertness? Researchers believe that a compound naturally found in cocoa is a mild stimulant that synergizes with the low amount of caffeine (average 8 mg/tablespoon) in cocoa that is associated with lifting our mood and improving mental alertness. Cocoa beans naturally contain approximately 1 percent of this compound and the amount in cocoa powder can from 2 to 10 percent. 

Ornishs recommendations
With all this good news, the bad news is that dark chocolate should not be included in your diet because it contains cocoa butter, which has saturated fat. The recommended serving limit in Ornish Lifestyle Medicine is 1 tablespoon of cocoa to limit the amount of caffeine. Due to the high concentration of antioxidants in cocoa, even just 1 tablespoon of cocoa powder has an approximate ORAC value of 1400 which is high compared with most foods.

Looking for other ways to live a healthier, happier life? Reverse heart disease and diabetes, lose weight and reduce your cancer risk with these tips from Dean Ornish.

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

More On

What are the health concerns about microwave popcorn?

video

What are the health concerns about microwave popcorn?
Some health concerns about microwave popcorn include inhaling toxins in the bag's lining, and added artificial flavorings (Diacetyl) and trans fats. W...
Alcohol and Cancer: What's the Connection?

article

Alcohol and Cancer: What's the Connection?
Drinking is associated with a laundry list of health risks—more than 200, if you’re keeping track. The more you drink, the greater your risk for one o...
4 Age-Defying Dinner Recipes

slideshow

4 Age-Defying Dinner Recipes
You can "reignite" a tired metabolism by eating more protein, fruits and veggies.
5 snacks nutritionists eat every day

video

5 snacks nutritionists eat every day
Kiwi holds a surprising health benefit!
Eating fruit can help you stay hydrated

video

Eating fruit can help you stay hydrated
As heat waves continue to sweep the nation, it's especially important to be vigilant when it comes to hydration.