NUTRITION GUIDELINES

Can Chocolate Really Be So Good for You?

By Temma Ehenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
 | 
July 28, 2015

Yes, if you eat small amounts of super-dark chocolate, not bon-bons.

We all like hearing that a favorite feel-good food is also healthy, and it’s true: dark chocolate contains healthy plant-based compounds called flavonoids, especially one with wonderful special effects, “epicatechin.” Stick to between one and two ounces of dark chocolate — that means with at least 70 percent cocoa.

Preventing heart disease. Evidence has been accumulating that dark chocolate is good for your heart (and maybe even more so if you consume it in a heart-shaped gift from your true love on Valentine’s Day). In a study following nearly 21,000 participants over around 12 years, those who regularly ate dark chocolate cut their chances for heart disease and stroke. Similar results emerged in a review of 9 studies with a total of nearly 158,000 participants.  

One reason may be that chocolate seems to reduce “bad” cholesterol and increase “good” cholesterol. It also helps lower blood pressure in people suffering from either systolic hypertension or diastolic prehypertension, but doesn’t cause dangerously low blood pressure, a meta-analysis of 13 studies concluded.   

Avoiding diabetes. It may sound odd, but eating dark chocolate — not super sweet milk chocolate — can help people avoid diabetes. Just 15 days of eating dark chocolate increased insulin sensitivity in one study. That said, eating chocolate regularly is associated with weight gain, according to a large study over six years, and being overweight is a risk factor for diabetes. The key, as always, is not to eat too much and to eat the right kind of chocolate.

Boosting mood. There’s a reason we give gifts of chocolate on holidays and to the ill: a dose of cocoa can boost your mood, according to at least five studies covered in a 2013 review.

Thinking more clearly. The same review found evidence for chocolate as a brain sharpener, though the case was less strong than for mood.

Minimizing stress. In another study, researchers gave healthy men age 20 to 50 some dark chocolate, and another group the same amount of chocolate that had been stripped of flavonoids. Two hours later, all the men then performed a standard test of psychological stress that involved public speaking and doing mental arithmetic. The men who ate the real chocolate with flavonoids were significantly less stressed out, according to measurements of chemicals in their blood.  

If you are sensitive to caffeine, be aware that some products pack as much caffeine in a daily serving as 1 ½ cups of coffee, according to the testing company ConsumerLab.com.

When picking your chocolate, choose a brand with at least 70 percent cocoa. Sugar should never be the first ingredient. Ideally, you’d eat your chocolate raw, but at the least avoid products that have been processed with alkali, which reduces flavonoids. You can eat this kind of chocolate daily — we’re talking a square — and also treat yourself to a square before challenges like giving a speech or a job interview. It may boost your mood, help you think more clearly, and be less reactive to the stress. Why not?

Updated:

July 28, 2015

Reviewed By:

Janet O’Dell, RN

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