Chocolate: A Heart-Smart Treat?

It wasn't too long ago that chocolate was considered about as healthy as a stick of butter. Not anymore.
Chocolate: A Heart-Smart Treat?

Chocolate has acquired quite a reputation as a not-so-sinful sweet indulgence. And though it may seem too good to be true, research does show that one type of chocolate is rich not only in flavor but also in the same protective antioxidants found in apples, grapes, green tea, and red wine.

So is chocolate the new superfood? Not quite. But a growing body of evidence suggests chocolate may have more to offer than guilty pleasure.

A Treat from Trees
Most of us don't think of chocolate as a plant-based food, but it is. Chocolate is made from the seeds of the Theobroma cacao tree. These seeds, also known as cocoa beans, are exceptionally rich in flavonoids, which are natural antioxidants thought to help protect against cardiovascular disease.

Once harvested, cocoa beans are left to ferment before being dried, roasted, and processed into the chocolate products we know and love.

But not all chocolate is created equal. Processing destroys many of the natural flavonoids present in cocoa beans, and chocolate products that have been alkalized have been almost entirely depleted of their natural goodness.

It's really only dark chocolate, high in cocoa content, that seems to be of benefit. Not white chocolate. Not milk chocolate. Only rich, dark chocolate.

Health Benefits
So what is it, exactly, that chocolate has to offer? Multiple studies suggest that eating small amounts of dark chocolate may protect cardiovascular health in the following ways:

Improved endothelial function: Several small-scale studies have shown that dark chocolate may help keep arteries elastic and blood free-flowing by improving the function of the endothelial cells that line blood vessels. One study of male smokers revealed that only 2 hours after eating a small piece of dark chocolate, participants experienced a significant improvement in endothelial function that lasted up to 8 hours.

Reduced blood pressure: In a recent study involving men and women with high blood pressure, those who ate 3 1/2 ounces of dark chocolate every day for 15 days experienced a drop in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure.

Results were similar in another study of people who were between the ages of 55 and 64 and had hypertension. The study participants who supplemented their diets with a daily dose of dark chocolate for 2 weeks experienced a significant reduction in blood pressure. But after only 2 days without chocolate, their blood pressure readings returned to previous levels.

Improved cholesterol profile: Evidence suggests that eating a small amount of dark chocolate every day may increase "good" HDL cholesterol while decreasing "bad" LDL cholesterol.

Chocolate contains three primary fatty acids, one of which, oleic acid, is also found in olive oil. Research indicates that oleic acid, a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, may slightly reduce total cholesterol.

The other two fats in chocolate, stearic acid and palmitic acid, are both saturated fats. In general, saturated fats, including palmitic acid, increase total cholesterol, which contributes to heart disease. Research shows, however, that unlike most saturated fats, stearic acid has no effect on cholesterol -- it doesn't reduce it, but it doesn't increase it, either.

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Chocolate's Dark Side
Before you ditch your bowl of fruit for a huge plate of brownies, let's do a quick reality check. A small portion of dark chocolate several times a week can be included as part of a healthy diet. But if you don't already eat chocolate, there's no legitimate health reason to start favoring it now. Chocolate not only is loaded with calories but also has far fewer health-boosting vitamins and minerals than fruit and vegetables do. It also contains caffeine, something that should be minimized in some people's diets. And for some, chocolate may worsen premenstrual symptoms or trigger migraine headaches.

Lead Levels in Chocolate
Cocoa and chocolate products have some of the highest levels of lead found in any food item. In contrast, fresh cocoa beans have some of the lowest levels of lead.

The Final Verdict?
Research on the potential health benefits of chocolate reveals promising short-term results, but results from larger long-term trials are needed before we can truly determine the impact of chocolate consumption on cardiovascular health. So for now, your best bet for a healthy heart is to eat a balanced diet with lots of veggies and fruit, exercise regularly, and keep stress levels under control. And every now and then, treat yourself to a guilt-free piece of rich, dark chocolate.

How's Your Heart Health? Get a quick snapshot of how healthy your heart is with this quiz.