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The Healthy Side of Chocolate

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A little bit of the sweet treat can have some surprising health benefits

 

By Jen Lazuta

Good news if you’re a fan of the sweet stuff — you don’t have to feel entirely guilty about indulging in a piece or two of dark chocolate. A growing body of research suggests that eating a small amount of dark chocolate regularly can carry a number of health benefits, from reducing your risk of heart disease to decreasing your risk of diabetes.

“Chocolate — and this may surprise you — is actually a plant-based food,” said Christine M. Palumbo, a registered dietician from Naperville, Illinois. “And as we all know, plant foods are full of good-for-you nutrients.”

That doesn’t give you permission to ditch the carrots and kale — chocolate is still very high in fat and sugar. But it does contain at least one good-for-you component — flavonoids. These antioxidant compounds, which are also found in foods like legumes, berries, citrus fruits and tea, occur naturally in the cocoa beans that chocolate is made from.

In plants, flavonoids help repair damage and protect against environmental toxins. When we eat flavonoid-rich foods, it seems that we reap the benefits of some of this antioxidant power. Here are some of the ways that munching on dark chocolate can boost your health:

 

Better Cardiovascular Health

Studies have shown that people who consume chocolate on a regular basis reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease by up to 37 percent.

The flavonoids in chocolate seem to help fend off inflammation, which is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Study participants who ate up to 20 grams (about half of a small bar) of dark chocolate every three days had much lower levels of C-reactive protein, an indicator of inflammation, than both those who ate higher amounts of chocolate and those who abstained from the sweet treat entirely.

Flavonoids also increase levels of nitric oxide, a molecule that relaxes blood vessels and improves blood flow and circulation, Palumbo said. This can help to normalize blood pressure and reduce inflammation.

 

Lower Risk of Stroke 

The flavonoids in chocolate may also help reduce your risk of stroke. In 2011, a Swedish research team found that women who eat 45 grams (a small bar) of chocolate per week have a 20 percent lower chance of stoke than women who eat fewer than nine grams of chocolate. When they repeated the study with men, they found that men who ate the equivalent of one chocolate bar per week had a 17 percent lower chance of having a stroke than those who never indulged.

This may be due to flavonoid’s power to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol — the artery-clogging substance that can disrupt blood flow, triggering a stroke. “It’s now believed that flavonoids inhibit [your body’s] cholesterol absorption,” Palumbo said.

Flavonoids also help your body expel the bad cholesterol in your body — they increase the rate at which your liver takes in and gets rid of LDL.

Additionally, flavonoids help to thin your blood and prevent clotting, which can help to protect against ischemic stroke (the type of stroke that occurs when an artery to the brain is blocked).

 

Decreased Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

People who indulge in chocolate regularly are less likely to become diabetic than those who avoid the treat. The flavonoids in chocolate appear to improve insulin sensitivity.

Your pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which circulates through the blood stream and helps the body use or store glucose (the simple sugar from food that provides energy to your cells). As we age, gain weight and become less active, our bodies become resistant to to insulin, Palumbo said. As a result, glucose builds up in the blood stream instead of being used or stored for energy. High blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, is a major risk factor for type 2 diabetes. The flavonoids found in chocolate work to increase your body’s sensitivity to insulin, lowering your diabetes risk: According to a study published by the British Medical Journal Group, eating chocolate as part of an otherwise healthy diet can reduce your risk of diabetes by up to 31 percent.

 

Reaping the Rewards

Eating pure cocoa is the best way to maximize the health benefits of flavonoids, said Palumbo — but your taste buds might reject that idea. 

“Flavonoids make chocolate bitter,” she said. “So the very thing that makes chocolate good for you also makes it taste bad. That’s why confectioners add ingredients, such as milk and sugar, to make it more palatable.”

To get your health boost with a little bit of sweetness, try to choose products that have high concentrations of cocoa. This means munching on dark chocolate, which usually has around 70 percent cocoa over milk chocolate, which can have as little as 10 percent (contrary to popular belief, white chocolate is not chocolate at all: it doesn’t contain cocoa and its health-boosting flavonoids). 

“Dark chocolate,” Palumbo said, “contains more antioxidants, more flavonoids and more healthy fatty acids than milk chocolate, and less sugar and dairy fat than milk chocolate.”

It also means avoiding processed chocolate, like candy bars, drink mixes and chocolate cakes; manufacturers usually strip these products of their flavonoids during processing to make them taste better.

And remember: While dark chocolate has health benefits, it isn’t exactly health food. Palumbo said most doctors recommend consuming no more than one or two small squares of chocolate each day, as part of a balanced diet.

“As with any food, moderation is key,” Palumbo said. “But if chocolate makes you happy and you want some of the health benefits from it, you can include it in a smart way without derailing your diet.” 

 

Published February 11, 2013. 

 

Jen Lazuta recently earned her Master's degree from the Medill School of Journalism and is a Chicago-based freelance writer.


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