Chocolate Is Actually Good for You
The delicious results of over 10 years of scientific research
- Our Love Affair with Chocolate
- Does Eating Chocolate Reduce Your Risk of Death?
- Resveratrol Also Found in Dark Chocolate and Cocoa
- More Heart Benefits of Eating Chocolate
- Chocolate Improves Baby Boomer Blood Flow
- Is Chocolate Really Good for Your Heart?
- Eating the Right Chocolate Protects Your Heart
- Should You Eat Chocolate?
- Does Eating Chocolate Help You Stay Healthy?
- The Protective Effect of Flavanols in Chocolate
- Eating Chocolate May be More Important to Your Health Than Penicillin
- Chocolate: Nature's Answer to Impaired Circulation
I find it somewhat amazing, but there has been a lot of serious research, conducted over the past 10 years or more, into the health benefits of chocolate. The results may sound too good to be true, but the bulk of the studies have concluded that eating small amounts of high-quality dark chocolate can actually be quite good for you. In fact, it could be far more important for your health than anyone ever imagined. (It's a chocoholics dream!)
As long as it's properly processed, real chocolate from cacao beans are:
- Super-rich in antioxidant flavonols; in fact, dark chocolate has been found to have more flavonoids than any other food tested so far, including blueberries, red wine and black and green teas.
- One of nature's best sources of magnesium (a nutrient that supports the heart, increases brainpower and causes bowel movements).
- High in fiber, which is great for the heart, as well as the gut.
Substances in dark chocolate are also known to have psychoactive effects. Dark chocolate is high in phenylethylamine (PEA), the same chemical the brain produces when you fall in love. It is thought to help create feelings of attraction. In fact, scientists have demonstrated that melting chocolate on your tongue is more stimulating than a passionate kiss! Chocolate can lift a dark mood in an instant, releasing both serotonin and endorphins in your brain. This means that chocolate acts something like a natural anti-depressant. Chocolate also causes your brain to produce natural opiates, which dull pain and increase a feeling of well-being. Chocolate even diminishes the appetite.
Two key compounds found in dark chocolate that benefit your health
There are two types of compounds in chocolate that have particular health benefits. They are both polyphenolic bioflavonoids: resveratrol and epicatechin.
More on Resveratrol:
Over the past decade, an abundance of evidence has emerged about the health benefits of resveratrol. It has to be classified as one of the most important of the antioxidants.
Resveratrol is part of the family called polyphenols, and is a very potent antioxidant compound. It is different from nearly all other antioxidants, in that it can cross the blood-brain barrier to help protect your brain and nervous system.
Studies have shown that resveratrol may increase the lifespan in human cells, so it could be a key to extending your longevity. It reduces oxidative stress damage to your cardiovascular system by neutralizing free radicals, and helps support your body's natural defenses.
Resveratrol, a naturally occurring antioxidant often associated with the health benefits of red wine, is also found in cocoa and dark chocolate products, but at levels that were less than California red wine.
Cocoa powder, baking chocolate and dark chocolate all have significant levels of resveratrol.
Resveratrol benefits your health in many ways, including:
- Protecting your cells from free radical damage,
- Inhibiting the spread of cancer, especially prostate cancer,
- Lowering your blood pressure,
- Keeping your heart healthy and improving elasticity in your blood vessels,
- Decreasing "bad" LDL cholesterol,
- Normalizing your body's inflammatory immune responses, and
- inhibiting the aggregation of blood platelets that contribute to the blood clots that produce heart attacks and strokes.
There is also evidence that resveratrol can slow down the signs of aging and help prevent Alzheimer's disease.
Epicatechin-rich cocoa could reduce your risk for cancer, heart failure, diabetes and stroke to less than 10 percent. In fact, some experts believe these conditions may someday be viewed as epicatechin deficiency-diseases.
Two key health benefits of eating chocolate
Several studies have shown that dark, unprocessed chocolate can have other positive influences on your health. It's active ingredients can reduce the risk for a host of serious illnesses. Two of the most important areas are in glucose metabolism and cardiovascular support.
Glucose metabolism: Dark chocolate supplementation has been linked to improved insulin resistance and sensitivity. This is critically important for diabetic control — and even diabetes prevention.
Researchers believe that the flavanols in dark chocolate help to regulate nitic oxide (NO) production, increasing nitric oxide bioavailability. How this works is still unclear, but one suggested mechanism is insulin-mediated cell signaling, because insulin can modulate several signaling molecules involved in nitric oxide-synthase regulation.
Cardiovascular health: Eating dark chocolate can reduce your risk for heart disease, stroke, blood clotting and clogged arteries. Studies have shown that regular cocoa consumption can lower your blood pressure, and even cut your risk of dying of a heart attack in half.
Chocolate's flavanols and NO production, and it's benefits for blood flow
One of chocolate's profound effects is on blood flow. According to a recent study, small daily doses of flavonoid-rich dark chocolate, eaten over a two-week period, were found to help the blood vessels dilate better. Cocoa's power to improve blood flow lies in the ability of its flavanols (particularly epicatechin) to kick the production of nitric oxide (NO) into high gear (similar to the way that pharmaceutical drugs work for male performance), increasing blood flow through arteries and improving heart health.
NO improves the inner lining of blood vessels, enhancing their elasticity and causing them to relax and open up, improving circulation, lowering blood pressure and helping your body to deliver oxygen and other nutrients in the blood more efficiently. These beneficial effects of chocolate have been demonstrated both with a single use, or with several uses over a few days.
The flavanols' ability to boost the levels of nitric oxide (NO) in the blood can actually reverse smoking-related damage to blood vessels, as well as the diminished blood flow in people suffering from type 2 diabetes. This raises the possibility of a potential new treatment for cardiovascular disease.
While these benefits are found with people of all ages, the flavanols in cocoa seem to offer particularly significant cardiovascular benefits to men and women over 50 years of age. This could be an indication that chocolate may be a very useful dietary approach to improving endothelial functioning among older adults.
Another health benefit of chocolate: Preventing blood clotting and heart attacks
Another of the benefits of eating dark chocolate was accidentally demonstrated to us by 139 people who bombed out of a Johns Hopkins University study on aspirin and heart disease.
In this study, participants were required to adhere to a chocolate-free diet. These 139 just couldn't make it through, and cheated on their diet. Despite being disqualified for this study, the researchers looked at their blood anyway. The 139 not only had lower levels of a platelet waste product (thromboxane) in their urine, but their blood clotted more slowly than samples taken from those patients who remained in the study.
By accident, the researchers found that small amounts of chocolate, like aspirin, can cut the risk of heart attack. It has a biochemical effect (remember the polyphenolic bioflavonoids) that reduces the clumping of platelets, which cause blood to clot. This clumping of platelet can be fatal, if a clot forms and blocks a blood vessel and causes a heart attack.
Other health benefits of dark chocolate
Research has also shown that chocolate consumption can lower your risk for other health problems, including:
- Prostate and lung cancer,
- Infectious diseases,
- Asthma and allergies,
- Cirrhosis of the liver.
The Kuna people of Panama: The Kuna, who drink up to 40 cups of cocoa a week, have a less than 10 percent risk of stroke, heart failure, cancer and diabetes. Hollenberg, who studied these people, believes that the epicatechin found in the cocoa is the reason for the low incidence of these diseases. He feels that epicatechin should be considered a vitamin; and other nutrition experts believe that epicatechin is so important, it could even warrant a rethinking of how vitamins are defined.
Caveat: It's not time to run out and buy a Pot of Gold
I guess that, for every silver lining, there has to be a cloud of grey. There is still enough reason to feel guilt over snarfing down that box of chocolates. You see, to receive these benefits from chocolate, you need to remember a few things:
- The chocolate must be eaten in small doses.
- It must be dark, minimally-processed chocolate, not your typical candies or milk chocolate.
- It shouldn't be overly sweet, or the negatives of the sugar outweigh the benefits of the chocolate.
Choosing the right chocolate
When choosing your chocolate, it's important to remember that there can be a lot of difference in commercially processed cocoa and chocolates. Factors to consider are:
- How many of the polyphenolic bioflavonoids survive processing. The key here is to find chocolate products that employ the least destructive processing techniques.
- Milk chocolate contains milk; and milk, according to a study published in the journal Nature, cancels out chocolate's antioxidant effects.
- Commercial chocolate can be contaminated with extremely high quantities of lead. It is currently unknown if this contamination is coming from the shipping or the manufacturing process.
- Epicatechin is removed from commercial cocoas, because it tends to have a bitter taste.
- The closer the chocolate is to its original raw state, the better it is for you.
- It's best to eat chocolate made from organic ingredients.
You also need to understand that these beneficial chemicals are also found in fruits and vegetables. Epicatechin is also found in teas, wine, chocolate and some fruits and vegetables.
Eating your chocolate the right way
Let's face it: No matter how much we might wish it to be otherwise, we all know — deep in our heart-of-hearts — that snarfing down a whole box of Pot of Gold is not the best way to enjoy the health benefits of chocolate. But, what is the right way?
Here are a few simple guidelines to keep your chocolate consumption safe and healthy:
- Eat only dark chocolate. If processed properly, it has the antioxidant properties we've been looking at, and can actually help your body fight off oxidative stress. But remember, most chocolate, dark or milk, is processed in ways that destroy the majority of the beneficial polyphenolic bioflavanoids, so choose your chocolate carefully.
- Only eat chocolate if you're healthy. Chocolate, even if it's dark, contains large quantities of sugar, which can have a profoundly negative influence on your immune system.
- Consume chocolate in moderation. A small bit of chocolate can be very satisfying, if you savor each bite, rather than just wolfing it down.
How much chocolate shoud you eat?
The question of "How much chocolate should you eat?" is a perfect example of when less is more. Researchers have determined that eating 6.7 grams (one small square of chocolate) a day offers you the best health benefits. That's less than half of a candy bar per week.
Sorry; not all news is good news.