When you think of heart-healthy foods, chocolate may not make your list right away. But this scrumptious treat — dark chocolate in particular — has been touted for many years to have health benefits. So is dark chocolate actually healthy?
Studies show that dark chocolate — when it is not loaded with sugar and saturated fat — is indeed a heart-healthy chocolate treat and more.
Dark chocolate is rich in disease-fighting antioxidants. Studies show it can help reduce blood pressure and lower your risk of heart disease.
“Eating chocolate is healthy when it is dark chocolate,” says Poulina Uddin, MD, a cardiologist at Scripps Clinic. “Studies show that eating a small amount of dark chocolate regularly can benefit your health.”
“Moderation is key,” Dr. Uddin continues. “Dark chocolate, like other chocolates, is still high in calories and can lead to weight gain. But in small amounts it can fit into a well-balanced diet.”
Antioxidants are commonly found in fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds — including cocoa beans from which chocolate is processed. They help fight inflammation and protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals.
Free radicals are byproducts of natural biological processes in our body, such as breathing and breaking down food, or stem from an outside source, such as tobacco smoke, toxins or pollutants. They can damage cells, proteins and DNA, and help trigger diseases.
The body uses antioxidants to lessen or prevent the effects of free radicals. Dark chocolates are rich with cocoa solids, which contain flavanols. Flavanols are a type of flavonoid — a plant compound with powerful disease-fighting antioxidants.
Researchers have found evidence that dark chocolate can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
A 2017 study found that eating raw almonds, dark chocolate and cocoa may help reduce the risk of coronary disease. The study in the Journal of American Heart Association found that this combination significantly reduced the number of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) — which are often called “bad cholesterol” due to the role they play in clogging arteries.
Other studies show that dark chocolate can help in:
- Making platelets in the blood less sticky and able to create clots, which can cause heart attack or stroke
- Processing nitric oxide, which helps improve blood flow throughout the body, including the brain
- Lowering the risk of insulin resistance, which reduces the risk of diabetes
- Controlling chronic inflammation, which can lead to heart disease.
Before you stock up on chocolate bars, remember that only dark chocolate has been found to be beneficial. Dark chocolate has the highest amount of cocoa flavanols.
“Milk chocolate has not shown similar benefits,” Dr. Uddin says. “Processing removes most of the beneficial compounds, including flavanols. White chocolate has no flavanols and is made simply of cocoa butter, sugar and milk.”
“Percentage of cocoa is important,” Dr. Uddin continues. “Stick with minimally processed dark chocolate bars that are at least 70 percent cocoa to obtain the most flavanols. But make sure to limit your portions.”
Keep in mind that the higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the greater the amount of cocoa flavanols, but also the greater the bitter flavor. “Try taking a small piece and letting it melt slowly in your mouth,” Dr. Uddin recommends. “Just a bite or so a day is all you need to reap the cardiovascular benefits.”
A standard bar of dark chocolate contains about 600 calories and 24 grams of sugar. Milk chocolate contains about the same number of calories, but twice the sugar.
“Overindulging doesn’t do your heart any favors,” Dr. Uddin says. “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.”
For maximum benefit, combine your taste for dark chocolate with a healthy lifestyle.
“Exercise, maintain a healthy weight and talk to your doctor about other risk factors that may influence your heart’s health.”