Health benefits of dark chocolate

February 24, 2012

Chocolate, Cholesterol, Health, Heart disease

Consuming as little as one square of dark chocolate per day can provide numerous health benefits.

by Paula Owens — 

From the moment chocolate was discovered, it was considered valuable, divine and decadent. Chocolate candies as we know them today were invented in the 1860s by Cadbury.

Consuming as little as one square of dark chocolate per day can provide numerous health benefits. Dark chocolate contains saturated fats (stearic acid and palmitic acid) and flavanols, which are the main type of flavonoid found in cocoa and chocolate. Flavonoids act as antioxidants, which help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals that are formed by normal bodily processes, such as breathing and from environmental contaminants like smog.

Decreases risk of hypertension — According to a study in the European Heart Journal, dark chocolate can help reduce the risk of hypertension and heart disease. Researcher Dr. Brian Buijsse from the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Nuthetal said, “Chocolate consumption appears to have a pronounced effect on blood pressure, therefore lowering the risk of strokes and heart attacks. In the study, those who ate the most chocolate had a 39 percent lower risk than those with the lowest chocolate intakes.”

Improves insulin sensitivity — “Flavanols appear to be the substances in cocoa that are responsible for improving the bioavailability of nitric oxide from the cells that line the inner wall of blood vessels,” explained Buijsse. “Nitric oxide is a gas that causes the smooth muscle cells of the blood vessels to relax and widen; this may contribute to lower blood pressure and increased insulin sensitivity. Nitric oxide also improves platelet function, making the blood less sticky, and makes the vascular endothelium less attractive for white blood cells to attach and stick around.”

Lowers LDL cholesterol — Basic science has demonstrated that dark chocolate with a cocoa content of at least 70 percent reduces oxidative stress and improves vascular and platelet function. The Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry published a report that polyphenols appear to elevate HDL cholesterol and decrease levels of LDL cholesterol in the liver and intestine, thereby helping to reduce the risk of heart disease.

Reduces stress and increases endorphins — Dark chocolate may actually reduce your stress levels. According to a study published in the Journal of Proteome Research, consuming half an ounce of dark chocolate per day for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones, cortisol and catecholamines in the bodies of people feeling highly stressed, and it partially corrected other stress-related biochemical imbalances.

Other studies have shown that eating dark chocolate can stimulate the production of endorphins (the “feel-good” hormones) and the release of serotonin (a natural antidepressant), which have both been linked to reducing stress levels. Another plus is that, because it can increase serotonin levels in the brain, it may also increase serotonin production in the gut, boosting your immune system. Additionally, dark chocolate has a touch of caffeine that can provide a burst of energy and a mood boost in times of stress.

British scientists observed couples while they ate squares of dark chocolate and while they kissed passionately. The women’s heart rates increased by 20 percent and their bodies released four times the endorphins when they ate dark chocolate.

Chocolate is also high in magnesium, which is considered the “anti-stress” mineral. Stress depletes zinc and magnesium from our bodies. Many chocolate addicts crave chocolate simply because they are deficient in magnesium.

Before you rush to add dark chocolate to your diet, it does not mean you should eat a pound of chocolate a day. Chocolate is still a high-calorie food. Be aware that 100 grams of dark chocolate contains roughly 500 calories. If you eat too much chocolate, you may experience migraines, kidney stones, weight gain, digestive problems (such as diarrhea) and heartburn.

According to a survey conducted by Rodale, Theo Chocolate’s Organic Dark Chocolate (70 percent) was ranked number one overall in the dark chocolate category. Testers detected complex flavors and reported impressions like “berry burst,” “bitter, but a good dark,” “bold, dark, subtle bitterness,” and “complex fruit flavors, nice and smooth.”

Remember, the health benefits of chocolate apply to dark chocolate with a high cocoa content of at least 70 percent. The higher the cocoa content, the healthier it is. Milk chocolate, white chocolate, candy bars and chocolate cake are not included, as they do not contain the healthy flavonols. As with everything, practice moderation.

Sources:

Metabolic effects of dark chocolate consumption on energy, gut microbiota, and stress-related metabolism in free-living subjects. Am J Clin Nutr, 2005;81:541-542, 611-614.

American Chemical Society. New evidence that dark chocolate helps ease emotional stress. ScienceDaily, www.sciencedaily.com.

www.ajcn.org/content/81/3/611.abstract.

eurheartj.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2010/03/18/eurheartj.ehq068.abstract.

www.rodale.com/organic-chocolate?page=0%2C2.

“Cacao polyphenols influence the regulation of apolipoprotein in hepg2 and caco2 cells,” Yasuda A, Natsume M, et al, J Agric Food Chem, 2011 Jan 12.

 

Paula Owens, M.S., is a holistic nutritionist, a strength and fitness expert, and holistic health practitioner with more than 25 years of experience. She is the author of The Power of 4. www.PaulaOwens.com.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 30, Number 2, April/May 2011.

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