It’s not hard to find reasons to love chocolate–and maybe that’s why most people consider it a guilty pleasure. But that perception is changing as research continues to demonstrate chocolate’s impressive list of health benefits.
The fact that chocolate is in a class of its own isn’t exactly news. In fact, the tree from which it is produced (the Theobroma cacao tree) takes its name from the Greek word for “food of the gods.” What is news is that our scientific research is just starting to support what our ancestors knew all along: that chocolate is actually good for us.
Health benefits of 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 points out all of these important benefits.
- Chocolate could help reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke for some high-risk people who eat a small amount each day.
- Chocolate is rich in flavonoids. These antioxidants are especially important in protecting against damage to cholesterol and the lining of the arteries.
- Chocolate flavonoids prevent the excessive clumping together of blood platelets that can cause blood clots.
- Unlike the saturated fats in meat and dairy products, chocolate’s saturated fats do not raise cholesterol levels.
- Chocolate can provide significant amounts of arginine. This amino acid is required in the production of nitric oxide–and that helps regulate blood flow, inflammation and blood pressure.
Waist-Trimming with Chocolate?
The above benefits are all-important, but not exactly high profile. However, recent research shows that eating more chocolate may have an effect that many people seek–a slimmer figure. Surprising, since weight concerns are a common reason for limiting chocolate.
A 2012 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that frequent chocolate consumption was associated with lower body mass index (BMI), which is used to measure obesity. After looking at data from 972 participants, researchers found that the high-chocolate/low-BMI link held true even after taking into consideration total calorie intake, exercise activity, and saturated fat intake.
These results are very promising. The researchers believe chocolate’s BMI benefits are linked to its heart health components–antioxidant flavonoids. Dark chocolate is higher in flavonoids than milk chocolate, so it offers the greatest health benefits. Most experts agree that the recommended “dose” of dark chocolate is approximately 30 to 60 grams per day (roughly 1 to 2 ounces). Americans already consume an average of about half an ounce of chocolate a day, but this recommendation allows for quite a bit more.
Before you start dipping all your food in chocolate sauce, let’s talk about balance. Most chocolate bars and desserts today contain excess sugar and milk that can undermine chocolate’s benefits. As with all good things, chocolate is best in moderation. Plus, it’s important to eat the most flavonoid-rich chocolate available to reap its health benefits. And no, a caramel and chocolate covered marshmallow bar doesn’t count as a health food.
Five ways to reap chocolate’s health benefits
For the biggest flavonoid bang for your caloric buck, make sure to follow these five guidelines for your chocolate consumption:
1. Choose high-quality dark chocolate. The darker, the better.
2. Limit daily intake to 1 to 2 ounces.
3. Avoid chocolate candies and treats made with hydrogenated fats or refined flour, neither of which promotes health.
4. Pass on products labeled “artificial chocolate” or “chocolate flavored.” These imitations are not even close to the real thing in flavor or texture–and certainly not in health benefits.
5. Skip white chocolate, which has had the beneficial polyphenols removed.
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Dr. Michael Murray