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Good news for chocolate enthusiasts. I have been asked this question about chocolate many times over the past few years.  I decided to post something to close out the holidays.  Dark chocolate has been found to help significantly lower cardiovascular mortality thanks to the high content of polyphenolic flavonoids.

Polyphenols are chemical compounds found in fruits, vegetables, teas, cocoa and other plants that have certain health benefits such as being antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic and other properties. They can also help protect from oxidative stress and some diseases.

Flavonoids are within the polyphenol family but while all flavonoids are polyphenols not all polyphenols are flavonoids. Plants produce flavonoids as protection against parasites, injury and harsh climatic conditions.

Cardiovascular disease can be caused by stress. The study tested healthy non-smoking men between the ages of 20 to 50 and assessed stress reactivity over a 6 week period of regularly consuming either flavonoid-containing tea or flavonoid-free placebo tea. It showed a faster decline in cortisol levels (stress levels) in the active tea group.

The test administrating dark chocolate was more in depth but showed similar results meaning that in certain doses dark chocolate can help assist a healthy lifestyle. Here is how it can affect the body in a positive way.

    Improves blood flow and protects arteries. A 2007 Swiss study of heart transplant patients found that the diameter of their coronary arteries was significantly increased after eating a single dose of dark chocolate. Which means that dark chocolate has a healthy effect on these important arteries that supply life-sustaining oxygen to the heart. A 2007 study by Chinese researchers found that participants who ate approximately 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate daily for two weeks significantly improved coronary blood flow. “Blood flow is vital to heart health because the blood carries oxygen, and oxygen is fuel for cells,” explains Tom Morledge, MD, of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Consider that the heart pumps 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and it’s easy to see why an optimum source of energy is important to its function. On the other hand, eating a fast food hamburger with all the trimmings can cause the arteries in our bodies to have impaired function within an hour.

  Prevents blockage of the arteries. LDL, or “lousy,” cholesterol becomes harmful if it is damaged by free radicals, which changes the structure of the LDL, causing it to become oxidized LDL cholesterol. Oxidized LDL cholesterol is then taken up by inflammatory cells that are in the lining of the arteries. The more accumulation, the more likely it is to form blockages that can impede blood flow or clots that can rapidly form, which trigger a heart attack. “Many studies suggest that the flavonoids in dark chocolate decrease the free radical damage of LDL cholesterol,” Dr. Morledge says. In addition, the flavonoids have a similar effect to aspirin. “Flavonoids are a natural blood thinner and affect platelets which can cause clots that lead to heart attacks.” We don’t know yet whether dark chocolate can actually prevent a heart attack, but some recent studies suggest that this might be the case.

  Raises levels of good cholesterol. HDL, or “healthy,” cholesterol works to moderate overall levels of cholesterol, and even small increases in HDL can lead to significant reduction in risk of developing heart disease. “For every 1 milligram improvement in HDL cholesterol, you get a 2 percent reduction in the risk of a heart attack,” Dr. Morledge says. Although studies present conflicting evidence about the full impact dark chocolate on HDL levels, several studies have linked dark chocolate consumption with higher HDL.

How Much Is Healthful?

Most of the research recommends a serving of about 1.5 ounces or less.  Although chocolate devotees won’t be at all surprised to hear it, research has also shown that dark chocolate can enhance mood and promote cognitive function: A 2004 study from British researchers found that participants who ate dark chocolate performed significantly better on visual tests that required quick reaction times and reported a noticeable uptick in their mood and energy levels.

Let’s keep in mind that chocolate still has calories so we do not want to eat so much we add to the caloric load or cause an imbalance by tipping the scales.

Perhaps the best way to add dark chocolate to your diet is as a replacement for other sweets you may be consuming — you’ll likely be eating fewer calories, consuming substantially fewer grams of sugar and sodium, and getting a lot more fiber if you opt for more traditional desserts. Not convinced? Compare the numbers on dark chocolate, carrot cake, a chocolate chip cookie from Starbucks, and a 1.5 ounce of Hershey’s milk chocolate for yourself:

Serving Size Calories Sugar Sodium Fiber
Dark chocolate 1.5 ounces 220 12 grams 5 mgs 5 grams
Milk chocolate 1.5 ounces 210 24 grams 35 mgs 1 gram
Carrot Cake 1/6 cake 300 27 grams 320 mgs 2 grams
Chocolate chip cookie 1 cookie 350 34 grams 300 mgs 3 grams

When you are shopping for a dark chocolate bar, let the cocoa content be your guide — it is typically listed prominently on the label, and you want a bar with at least 70 percent cocoa beans. The higher the percentage, the more antioxidant content. If you really want to prioritize the antioxidant content, consider buying cocoa powder — it has the highest concentrations of flavonoids of any dark chocolate product.

Yours for Better Health, Dr. Shapero


Source: Perani, Clara, Inga Neumann, Stefan Reber, and David Slattery. “High-fat Diet Prevents Adaptive Peripartum-associated Adrenal Gland Plasticity and Anxiolysis.” Scientific Reports. Nature Publishing Group. Web. 13 Nov. 2015.

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