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Eating chocolate may be a heart-healthy choice because chocolate (and its main ingredient, cocoa) may reduce risk factors for heart disease. Chocolate contains flavanols, which are a chemical in cocoa beans that may have antioxidant properties that can reduce the cell damage that is implicated in heart disease. These flavanol chemicals may also help to lower blood pressure and improve vascular function. Remember, moderation is always a good practice, even when it comes to eating chocolate.
One of the key areas of research into the benefits of chocolate consumption is its effect on cardiovascular disease.
A growing amount of recent research suggests that:
- Unlike the saturated fats found in meat and dairy products, the saturated fats found in chocolate do not elevate cholesterol levels.
- Cocoa butter contains small amounts of the plant sterols, sitosterols, and stigmasterols, which may help inhibit the absorption of dietary cholesterol.
- Chocolate can be a rich source of flavonoid antioxidants, which are especially important in protecting against damage to the lining of the arteries.
- Chocolate can provide significant amounts of arginine, an amino acid that is required in the production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide causes blood vessels to dilate, which helps regulate blood flow, inflammation, and blood pressure.
- Chocolate flavonoids also work like a very low dose of aspirin to prevent blood platelets from aggregating. When blood platelets are too sticky, they tend to clump together and form a blood clot. A blood clot can become dislodged, leading to a heart attack, stroke, or pulmonary embolism. In one study, an 81 mg dose of aspirin (i.e., a baby aspirin) and a flavonoid-rich cocoa drink containing 25 g (a little less than 1 oz.) of semisweet chocolate were shown to have similar effects in terms of preventing platelets from clumping together or clotting.
Research on cocoa’s cardiovascular benefits suggests that it can, in moderation, be beneficial.
Here are some reasons that a little cocoa can go a long way in helping your heart:
- Cocoa powder is high in flavanols -- potent antioxidants.
- In numerous studies, consumption of cocoa powder and dark chocolate has helped lower the oxidation of LDL and raise HDL.
- British researchers report that cocoa powder inhibits the platelet activity that causes clotting.
- German researchers report that chocolate can help control blood pressure. In their study, participants with mild hypertension were given 3 ounces of either dark chocolate or white chocolate (which some do not technically consider chocolate, as it contains only cocoa butter and cocoa liquor) daily. After two weeks, blood pressure levels dropped in the dark chocolate group and remained unchanged in the white chocolate group.
- Greek researchers report that dark chocolate may alleviate arterial stiffness. Their study found that it improves the flexibility of blood vessels in the hours immediately after consumption. It’s possible that by improving the function of the cells lining blood vessel walls, cocoa compounds may play a part in preventing the hardening of arteries that can lead to heart attacks.
Note: Keep in mind that when cocoa is incorporated into chocolate candy, the end product is high in calories, half of which come from fat -- and most of it is of the saturated kind.
So, should you eat chocolate for your health? Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD, distinguished professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University and author of several chocolate studies, observes: “It’s okay to eat dark chocolate in small amounts, as long as you eat an otherwise healthy diet and can afford the calories. Try eating it with nuts or fruit for more good fats and even more antioxidants.”
This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.