by Matthew Lucks, MD
On an island called Kuna in Panama, indigenous residents drink about five cups of cocoa every day. They also cook with it. And they rarely develop heart disease. Yet when they leave the island, their risk of high blood pressure goes up — and research has ruled out salt intake or obesity as the cause.
When you think of heart-healthy foods, chocolate probably isn’t at the top of your list. Over the past few years, however, multiple studies have shown that chocolate’s bad reputation may not be fully deserved.
As you may have heard by now (and Kuna residents have long known), certain “indulgences” such as dark chocolate may actually benefit your cardiovascular system — provided you’re smart about the way you enjoy them.
How can a traditionally taboo treat such as chocolate help your heart? Research suggests there are several benefits. According to one study, cocoa contains significant amounts of substances called flavonols.
Flavonols are a type of flavonoids, which are plant compounds that contain powerful antioxidant properties that are thought to help our cells fight off and repair the damage caused by free radicals, which result from normal, day-to-day processes such as breathing and by environmental factors like pollution and cigarette smoke.
Without sufficient antioxidant protection, our bodies cannot defend against free radical damage, which can lead to heart disease.
Flavonoids help prevent fat-like matter in the bloodstream from clogging the arteries, as well as reduce the ability of platelets in the blood to stick together and create clots. Without flavonoids, these processes can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. Along with cocoa beans, flavonoids are found in red wine, certain teas, and many fresh fruits and vegetables.
Another study compared the effect on blood palates of a cocoa drink rich in flavonols with 81 milligrams of aspirin — the amount most often recommended for people with heart problems to help thin their blood and prevent clotting.
Researchers found that the cocoa drink and the aspirin had similar success in keeping platelets from clotting and enhancing blood flow, although the benefits from the aspirin lasted longer. (If you already take an aspirin daily, don’t replace it with chocolate without talking to your doctor first.)
Researchers also believe flavonols help the body process nitric oxide (NO), which plays a very important role in regulating blood pressure and promoting cardiovascular health.
In this study, volunteers drank cocoa that contained either a high or low amount of flavonols; the volunteers who consumed more flavonols processed nitric oxide more efficiently than those who received lower amounts.
Yet another study found that dark chocolate may also help control chronic inflammation, which can lead to heart disease, in healthy people with no existing risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.
Patients who have a low amount of C reactive protein in their blood have been found to have lower levels of inflammation in their bodies as well. Regularly consuming small amounts of dark chocolate — about 6.7 grams or 0.23 ounces per day — can notably decrease the levels of C reactive protein.
Before you bite into that chocolate bar, though, note that only dark chocolate (at least 75% cocoa) has been found to be beneficial. Milk chocolate has not shown similar benefits, and processing removes most flavonoids from products such as cocoa powder and syrup.
Moreover, don’t interpret these studies as a green light to eat dark chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Just a bite or so a day is all you need to reap the cardiovascular benefits; any more than that, and you may find extra weight creeping up fast.
Then you’re not doing your heart any favors. Excess weight makes your heart work much harder just to do its job, and increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes. Maintain a healthier weight, and you’ll have a healthier heart.
Mix in at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity at least five days a week as well, to burn of that chocolate and give your heart some exercise. Finally, talk to your doctor about other risk factors that may influence your heart’s health and how to minimize them.
This Scripps Health and Wellness information was provided by Matthew Lucks, cardiologist at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encinitas and Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla.