When you think of heart-healthy foods, chocolate may not make the list. Over the past few years, however, multiple studies have shown that some kinds of chocolate may fit into a smart eating plan. As you may have heard by now, “indulgences” like dark chocolate may actually benefit your cardiovascular system — provided you’re informed about the way you enjoy them.
“People might ask how something like chocolate can help your heart,” says Matthew Lucks, MD a cardiologist with Scripps Health in San Diego. “Actually, research suggests there are several benefits to eating a small amount of dark chocolate regularly.”
According to one study, cocoa contains significant amounts of substances called flavonols — which are a type of flavonoid — a plant compound with powerful antioxidant properties.
Antioxidants are a group of chemical compounds found in fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts (including the cacao beans from which chocolate is processed) that are thought to help fight inflammation and repair free radical damage, which is the basic wear-and-tear that our bodies go through every day from stresses caused by normal processes like breathing and breaking down food, or more challenging environmental factors like dealing with pollution and cigarette smoke. Without sufficient antioxidant protection from dietary sources, free radical damage can lead to heart disease
Flavonoids may also 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, both of which can cause heart attack or stroke.
Another study compared the effect ingesting a high-flavonol cocoa drink with taking 81 milligrams of aspirin—the amount most often recommended for people with heart problems, to help thin their blood and prevent clotting. The cocoa drink and the aspirin had similar success in keeping platelets from clotting and enhancing blood flow, although benefits from aspirin lasted longer.
“If you already take an aspirin daily, don’t replace it with chocolate without talking to your doctor first,” Dr. Lucks warns.
Researchers believe flavonols also help the body process nitric oxide (NO), which plays an important role in regulating blood pressure to promote cardiovascular health. In one study, volunteers drank cocoa that contained either a high or low level 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 who have no preexisting heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. 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, which is a marker of inflammation in the body.
Before you stock up on chocolate bars, remember that only dark chocolate (at least 75 percent cocoa) has been found to be beneficial,” adds Dr. Lucks. “Milk chocolate has not shown similar benefits. Processing removes most of the beneficial compounds, including 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. That’s because chocolate also contains a fat and is sweetened with sugar. Over-indulging doesn’t do 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.
Combine your little taste of dark chocolate with a healthy lifestyle for maximum benefit. Exercise, maintain a healthy weight and talk to your doctor about other risk factors that may influence your heart’s health