Health: The Health Benefits of Chocolate
Sure, chocolate is decadent, but it’s not as sinful as you think. The Medical Detective reveals the proven health benefits of chocolate, from your head to heart. Read on for all the reasons you can eat chocolate…
Go ahead, chocoholics! Dive into the sweet stuff. That chocolate bar is healthier than you think.
That’s thanks to chocolate’s main ingredient, cacao beans, which are rich in chemicals with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-clotting properties.
“Numerous human clinical trials show that cocoa has extraordinary benefits for cardiovascular health, diabetes, memory and brain function,” says Eric Ding, Ph.D., an epidemiologist and faculty scientist in the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, and lead researcher on a landmark 2011 review of studies about cocoa’s effect on the cardiovascular system.
Although cacao and cocoa are used interchangeably, cacao refers to the tree, pods and beans inside. Cocoa is the two manufactured products of those beans: cocoa powder and cocoa butter (a chocolate bar’s top ingredients). Cocoa also refers to the chocolate drink.
Dark chocolate is best because it has more flavanols. These plant compounds, with names like “epicatechins,” “catechins” or “procyanidins,” are rich with the antioxidants that may lower the risk of certain diseases, he adds.
“Don’t overindulge in chocolate bars, though; these benefits can be canceled out by the calories and sugar in most chocolate,” Ding warns.
So limit yourself to 7 ounces per week (about two large dark-chocolate bars), say researchers at the University of California, San Francisco who studied the benefits of chocolate for heart health. For example, 1-1/2 ounces of Scharffen Berger extra-dark chocolate (with 82% cacao content) has about 260 calories and 19 grams of fat.
Look for chocolate with more cocoa and little added sugar, called “bittersweet” (with 75%-99% cacao) or “semisweet” (with 50%-69%). Cocoa nibs (100% cacao) have about 130 calories per ounce and 13 grams of fat. Milk chocolate contanins just 10%-49% cacao, and lacks the healthful flavanol benefits, Ding says.
If a bar says “65% cacao,” that means it has 65% bean solids and 35% sugar.
Health benefit of chocolate #1: Lowers heart attack risk.
Eating about 2 tablespoons – or two-thirds’ ounce – of dark chocolate daily lowers your risk of a heart attack or stroke by 39%, according to an eight-year German study of 19,357 adults, published in the European Heart Journal in 2010.
It raises levels of HDL (good) cholesterol and lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, the study found.
And cocoa’s flavanols widen blood vessels, reduce blood pressure and also loosen platelets, preventing them from clumping and restricting blood flow, like low-dose aspirin does, according to a 2006 Johns Hopkins University study.
How much to eat: One square of dark chocolate per day, according to the German study’s authors.
Eat chocolate that contains cocoa butter, not added palm, coconut, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. Cocoa butter has saturated fat, called stearic acid, but unlike other saturated fats, it doesn’t raise cholesterol levels, because it’s converted in the liver to heart-healthy oleic acid, Ding says.
To go fat- and calorie-free, try a flavanol capsule or tablet made from cacao, or a flavanol-fortified cocoa bar or chocolate shake, available at health-food or vitamin stores.
“Flavanol supplements don’t give you the kick of chocolate,” Ding says. “But a chocolate candy bar may add 1,000 calories of fat and sugar in a day, erasing the positive effects you’re hoping for.”
Health benefit of chocolate #2: Protects against blood inflammation.
As we age, we’re at greater risk for atherosclerosis – the buildup of fats and cholesterol in artery walls that restrict blood flow.
The inflammatory condition affects arteries from “head to toe,” says Yerem Yeghiazarians, M.D., associate professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at the University of San Francisco and co-author of a 2010 study about flavanols’ effects on coronary artery disease.
But flavanols target inflammation, Dr. Yeghiazarians says.
People who ate moderate amounts of dark chocolate regularly had 17% lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for blood inflammation, according to the 2008 Moli-sani Project, one of the largest European health studies ever conducted. That corresponded with up to a 33% reduction in cardiovascular disease among women and men.
“Even in the sickest patients, adding a [concentrated] flavanol drink to their diets may improve their blood vessel health,” Dr. Yeghiazarians says.
(Certain people should go easy on the chocolate. Click here to find out if you’re one of them.)
How much to eat: 6.7 grams of dark chocolate per day (or half a bar per week), according to the study’s authors.
Health benefit of chocolate #3: Prevents diabetes.
Though it seems as unlikely as licking lollipops to fight tooth decay, dark chocolate can reduce your risk of diabetes.
People who ate it regularly – more than once weekly – had a 31% lower risk of type 2 diabetes than those who ate it less than once a week, according to a 2011 study of 114,000 people by the University of Cambridge, England, published in the British Medical Journal.
That’s because flavonoids may increase production of nitric oxide, which helps improve insulin sensitivity – your body’s ability to determine how sensitive it is to the effects of insulin. Those who are insulin sensitive process glucose with smaller amounts of the hormone – and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
How much to eat: The amount of chocolate consumed wasn’t defined in the study, but eating it regularly in moderation (about 1 ounce daily), rather than intermittently, appeared to be key in lowering diabetes risk, the authors said.
Health benefit of chocolate #4: Controls weight.
Surprisingly, people who eat chocolate the most frequently – five times a week – often are thinner and have a lower Body Mass Index (a measure of body-fat content based on height and weight), than those who consume it less often, according to a 2012 study by the University of California, San Diego, published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.
The researchers believe that cocoa reduces the number of calories your body turns to fat, so regularly consuming modest amounts of chocolate won’t pack on pounds.
Eating it more frequently – about an ounce daily – leads to greater benefits, they say.
How much to eat: Five “modest” 1-ounce servings of chocolate per week, the study authors recommended.
Health benefit of chocolate #5: Improves memory and task performance in the elderly.
Chocolate helps those with unusually poor mental function (confusion, forgetfulness and concentration), which affects more than 6% of people ages 70 and older and can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Credit cocoa’s flavanols: They increase insulin sensitivity, protect brain cells and improve cardiovascular function, allowing more blood to reach the brain, according to a 2012 study by the University of L’Aquila, Italy.
In that study, elderly participants who drank dairy-based cocoa with high (990 mg) and medium (520 mg) amounts of flavanols each day for eight weeks scored highest on tests measuring working memory, verbal memory and task-switching.
How much to eat: 520-990 mg of a cocoa flavanol supplement, or 1 ounce of dark chocolate daily, the researchers recommended.
Health benefit of chocolate #6: Improves math skills.
You don’t need to be old to benefit from flavanoids’ increased blood flow to the brain, according to a 2009 study by Northumbria University in England.
Study participants who drank a cup of hot cocoa with 500 mg of flavanols performed better on simple mental arithmetic problems, like adding the cost of grocery items or balancing a checkbook in your head, the researchers said.
How much to eat: A single serving of 500 mg (0.02 ounces) of flavanols in one cup of hot cocoa, or five dark chocolate squares, the researchers recommend.
Health benefit of chocolate #7: Control a cough.
When a cough turns nasty and chronic, many patients turn to medicine with codeine, a narcotic. But chocolate might also work, researchers say.
Thank theobromine, a stimulant in cocoa, which was almost one-third more effective in stopping cough symptoms than cough medicines with codeine or a placebo, according to a 2004 study by Imperial College London and published in theJournal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
Theobromine inhibits activity of the vagus nerve, which is partially responsible for the cough reflex.
How much to eat: The study researchers used a single dose of 1,000 mg (0.04 ounces) of theobromine. (Unsweetened chocolate has 400 mg per ounce; milk chocolate has 44 mg per ounce.)
Health benefit of chocolate #8: Improves your mood.
A chunk of chocolate is just the ticket to curing the blues. That’s because chocolate stimulates production of natural opioid chemicals such as endorphins. Those enhance your pleasure sensations and sense of well-being, according to a 1995 study by the University of Michigan.
It also raises the levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that regulates emotion and controls your brain’s reward centers, according to 2011 findings by scientists at Georgia Health Sciences University and East China Normal University.
What’s more, chocolate has theobromine and caffeine, and combining these stimulating chemicals may give you a happy buzz, according to a 2004 University of Bristol, England study.
How much to eat: One to two squares of dark chocolate will have a positive effect, says Dr. Yeghiazarians.
Health benefit of chocolate #9: Reduce stress.
Dark chocolate may be stimulating, but it can also help you relax, according to a small 2009 study at Nestle Research Center, published in the Journal of Proteome Research.
When highly stressed participants consumed moderate amounts of dark chocolates for two weeks, they had lower levels of stress-related hormones cortisol and catecholamine, researchers found.
How much to eat: 1.4 ounces of dark chocolate (with at least 74% cocoa) daily – a little less than a regular-sized (1.55-ounce) Hershey’s bar, according to the researchers. Eat half at mid-morning and half in the afternoon.