Jamie Sculley, ND
5 Health Benefits of Chocolate
Updated: May 7, 2020
Is there anything better than chocolate?With today being Valentine's Day I thought it would be fun to dive into the topic of chocolate and health since it's something so many of us love to indulge in.
Chocolate is made from the seeds of a plant known as Theobroma cacao. The difference between milk and dark chocolate is the amount of cocoa solids that are left in during processing and whether milk has been added. Dark chocolate doesn't have added milk and contains more cocoa solids, giving it the most health benefits compared to milk chocolate. When it comes to chocolate and health, dark chocolate is best because the cocoa solids are where the beneficial antioxidants are found.
The Health Benefits of Chocolate
Nutritional facts - Chocolate has some nutritional value and contains minerals including iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, zinc and selenium. It also has a couple grams of fiber per ounce. These minerals are important for maintaining our oxygen-transporting red blood cells and for the proper functioning of our nervous, immune and hormonal systems.
High in antioxidants - The high antioxidant content of cocoa beans is what gives chocolate many of its health benefits. Our bodies are in constant need of antioxidants to deal with oxidative stress from metabolism and exposures in our environment such as smoke, UV radiation, alcohol and illness. The flavonols in chocolate help to lower blood pressure, decrease blood clotting and protect our arteries against the harmful effects of cholesterol and high blood sugar.
Reduces blood pressure - Small amounts of chocolate have been shown to increase nitric oxide, which allows more blood flow and reduces blood pressure by relaxing our arteries. The reduction found in studies is minimal, resulting in a decrease of about 2-3 points for systolic and diastolic readings, however, having small amounts of dark chocolate could be done in addition to other diet and lifestyle changes to bring blood pressure down further into a healthy range.
Protects arteries from cholesterol - All those antioxidants found in cocoa not only help to protect our cells from free radical damage, they help to protect the LDL cholesterol in our arteries from becoming oxidized and forming blockages. Chocolate also raises the protective HDL cholesterol that carries LDL cholesterol away.
Improves insulin sensitivity - The presence of glucose in our blood stimulates the production of insulin whose job it is to tell our cells to use it for energy. If blood sugar is chronically high the cells become less sensitive to these signals and more insulin is required to convey the same message, leaving blood sugar elevated for long periods of time. High blood sugar can damage artery walls, increase the likelihood of LDL cholesterol becoming arterial plaque, promote nerve damage and puts stress on the kidneys. Antioxidants found in chocolate make our cells more sensitive to insulin's signals and help to keep blood sugar in a healthy range. If you have diabetes I still suggest you limit sugar intake and monitor your blood sugar regularly, but dark chocolate may be a good option when it comes to having a sweet treat.
When it comes to the heart, antioxidant-rich dark chocolate has many health benefits including decreasing blood pressure and cholesterol, protecting our arteries from the harmful effects of LDL cholesterol and helps with blood sugar control. Even with these benefits in mind, chocolate should be eaten in moderation. In many of the studies I read the participants consumed small amounts of chocolate and it was rich in antioxidants so if you're trying to get similar benefits go with at least 65% dark chocolate. Limiting intake to about 1 ounce per day can be a nice way to indulge without getting too much sugar, fat or calories.
I hope you have a Happy Valentine's Day!
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Baba, Seigo, et al. “Plasma LDL and HDL Cholesterol and Oxidized LDL Concentrations Are Altered in Normo- and Hypercholesterolemic Humans after Intake of Different Levels of Cocoa Powder.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 137, no. 6, June 2007, pp. 1436–1441., doi:10.1093/jn/137.6.1436.
Crozier, Stephen J, et al. “Cacao Seeds Are a ‘Super Fruit’: A Comparative Analysis of Various Fruit Powders and Products.” Chemistry Central Journal, vol. 5, no. 1, 7 Feb. 2011, p. 5., doi:10.1186/1752-153x-5-5.
Grassi, Davide, et al. “Blood Pressure Is Reduced and Insulin Sensitivity Increased in Glucose-Intolerant, Hypertensive Subjects after 15 Days of Consuming High-Polyphenol Dark Chocolate.” The Journal of Nutrition, vol. 138, no. 9, Sept. 2008, pp. 1671–1676., doi:10.1093/jn/138.9.1671.
Taubert , D, et al. “Effects of Low Habitual Cocoa Intake on Blood Pressure and Bioactive Nitric Oxide: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” JAMA, vol. 298, no. 1, 4 July 2007, pp. 49–60., doi:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17609490.