Health Benefits of Chocolate

The Many Health Benefits of Chocolate

Americans buy billions of dollars’ worth of candy every year, and 75 percent of it is chocolate. Although this treat contains a lot of sugar, fat, and calories, the health benefits of chocolate—particularly high-quality dark chocolate—are numerous.

Health Benefit of Chocolate #1: Lowers Blood Pressure

One of cocoa’s most abundant polyphenols is flavanol, which stimulates the production of nitric oxide (NO). NO is a very important signaling molecule. When it is produced in the arteries, it acts as a vasodilator, relaxing the arteries and causing them to open up, thus bringing down blood pressure.

In a landmark study, German researchers divided older people with mild hypertension into two groups and gave them 100 g dark chocolate or 90 g white chocolate every day for two weeks. (White chocolate contains no cocoa.) They had a one-week “washout” period in which they ate no chocolate, followed by another two weeks of eating the other chocolate. Blood pressure fell in those eating dark chocolate an average of 5.1/1.8 (systolic/diastolic) and did not change in those eating white chocolate.

Health Benefit of Chocolate #2: Improves Insulin Sensitivity

Italian researchers published results of a study with a similar design involving 15 healthy men and women. Glucose tolerance tests were done at the end of each period, and blood pressure was taken daily. Like the German study, dark chocolate lowered blood pressure. It also significantly improved markers of insulin sensitivity, decreasing fasting insulin and glucose levels, as well as insulin and glucose responses to the glucose tolerance test.

Now, I know many of you are thinking that sugar-laden chocolate is the last thing people with diabetes need to be eating. Yet this study suggests that dark chocolate actually ameliorates high blood sugar.

Health Benefit of Chocolate #3: Mediates Inflammation

Inflammation plays a role in conditions as diverse as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, and autoimmune disorders. In fact, all major chronic diseases are associated with inflammation.

Cocoa flavanols have been shown to lower inflammation. They do this by reducing blood concentrations of 5-lipoxygenase (5-LO), a key enzyme in the synthesis of leukotrienes. Leukotrienes are involved in inflammation in tissues throughout the body, including pain and allergic reactions. Dampening the flames of inflammation is crucial for disease treatment and prevention, and dark chocolate is another tool for doing just that.

Health Benefit of Chocolate #4: Protects Against Heart Disease

As you know, elevations in blood pressure, insulin resistance, and inflammation all increase risk of heart disease. But chocolate’s protective effects go beyond these three mechanisms. Nitric oxide, in addition to lowering blood pressure, also helps prevent arterial spasms, which temporarily decrease blood flow, and platelet aggregation, the clumping together of blood cells that reduces blood fluidity and impairs circulation.

Chocolate’s potent antioxidants shield the endothelial cells lining the arteries as well as LDL cholesterol against free radical damage. Dark chocolate has the highest oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) of any food. According to this measurement of foods’ antioxidant strength,  dark chocolate at 13,120 stands head and shoulders above other high-ORAC foods such as milk chocolate (6,740), raisins (2,830), blueberries (2,400), spinach (1,260), broccoli (890), and red grapes (739).

Dark chocolate also has positive effects on cholesterol levels. Although its hefty saturated fat content may give one pause, most of that fat is stearic acid, which, unlike other saturated fats, has no adverse effects on cholesterol levels. In fact, dark chocolate actually appears to raise protective HDL cholesterol, while having no effect on LDL.

The cardiovascular health benefits of chocolate (dark only) are so potent that it was named one of the seven heart-healthiest foods, along with wine, fish, fruits, vegetables, garlic, and almonds. In an article published in the prestigious British Medical Journal, researchers theorized that including these foods in your diet would reduce cardiovascular events by an astounding 76 percent and increase life expectancy in men and women by 6.6 and 4.8 years, respectively.

Health Benefit of Chocolate #5: Makes You Feel Good

There’s something about chocolate that goes beyond satisfying your sweet tooth or hunger pangs. Maybe it’s the smooth, creamy “mouth-feel” we find so comforting. It might be an emotional connection to all those chocolate Easter bunnies and special treats from our childhood. Or it could be chocolate’s tryptophan and phenylethylamine, which increase levels of neurotransmitters associated with sensations of pleasure. There is even research to suggest that compounds in chocolate stimulate the same “feel-good” receptors as falling in love. (No wonder chocolate and Valentine’s Day are inseparable.)

For whatever reason, most of us like chocolate, and some of us crave it like nothing else. An unknown chocoholic once said, “There are four basic food groups: milk chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate, and chocolate truffles.” However, if you want to reap the health benefits of chocolate discussed in this blog post, stick with dark chocolate and enjoy it in moderation.


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