Ah…chocolate. Most people love the indulgence of chocolate. Even us heart doctors enjoy a little chocolate now and again. Believe it or not, there is growing evidence that, in moderation, there are some heart healthy benefits of chocolate. Well, at least dark chocolate, which we know most chocolate connoisseurs prefer. When it comes to heart health, we decided to take a look at some of the benefits of chocolate.
Why is Chocolate Heart Healthy?
In moderation, chocolate may have some heart healthy benefits. This is primarily due to the cacao bean which is high in a plant nutrient called flavonoids. Flavonoids are natural in plants and protect them from environmental toxins and can help repair the damage. They are found in a lot of fruits and vegetables and act as an antioxidant.
As an antioxidant, these flavonoids help our body resist damage caused by free radicals formed by normal bodily processes, such as breathing, and from environmental contaminants including cigarette smoke. If your body does not have enough antioxidants to combat the oxidation caused by free radicals, a build-up of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as bad cholesterol, can form on artery walls. And, as we know, this build up can greatly increase blood pressure and lead to heart disease.
In addition to being an antioxidant, flavanols help aid with overall cardiovascular health, including helping lower blood pressure and improving blood flow to the brain and heart by making blood platelets less likely to clot. This is good news, especially for people with atrial fibrillation who are more at risk for stroke due to blood clots.
Chocolate Helps Prevent Heart Disease
The primary ingredient in chocolate is cacao which gives chocolate its strong and pungent taste, but it is also full of flavanols. Among some of the early evidence for the benefits of cacao stems from examining the island population of Kuna Indians in Panama. Centuries ago, the Kuna Indians drank about four cups of cacao a day and they were free of heart disease. However, when they adopted Western culture and diets, they ceased drinking cacao and, sure enough, their population developed heart disease and high blood pressure. As a result, there are many proponents that have concluded that eating chocolate which contains high levels of flavonoids, in moderation, can help keep heart disease at bay.
Dark Versus Milk Chocolate – Which is Healthier?
Unfortunately, you are not going to benefit from just going out and buying a candy bar, as that chocolate is highly processed. The more processing chocolate goes through, the more flavonoids are removed. This is normal, as most chocolate makers are trying to reduce the actual pungent taste of cacao, but in the process, they remove a lot of the healthy nutrients including the flavonoids.
While once, it was believed that dark chocolate contained more flavonoids, it has been found that may not be true as it depends on how the chocolate is processed. However, a lot of milk chocolate also contains unhealthy fat and added sugars, so dark chocolate is considered a healthier option. But, the level of flavonoids, between the two, may not vary.
The good news is, many chocolate makers are recognizing the health benefits of flavonoids. As a result, more and more manufacturers are looking at ways to keep flavonoids in their processed chocolates.
How to Use this Information
Of course, you cannot only eat dark chocolate and hope to stave off heart disease. It must be consumed in moderation along with eating a healthy low-fat diet, reducing stress, exercising, getting adequate sleep, and maintaining a healthy weight. And, while chocolate can help reduce blood clots, it should not replace any blood thinning medication that has been prescribed by your cardiologist. However, having one ounce of chocolate a few times a week is fine. But, you should also include other flavonoid-rich foods such as apples, tea, onions, red wine (if allowed by your doctor) and cranberries.