7 Heart-Healthy Perks of Dark Chocolate
By Jennifer J. Brown, PhD, Everyday Health
Photos by iStock Photo; iStock Photo; Getty Images
Evidence is building that products of the cacao plant, especially dark chocolate, are good for your heart. Medical studies show that people who eat dark chocolate have healthier cardiovascular systems, boasting better blood circulation and lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Cardiologist and Everyday Health columnist T. Jared Bunch, MD, recommends chocolate as part of your strategy to keep the world’s No. 1 killer disease at bay. “Dark chocolate should be included in a life plan that includes exercise, eating healthy foods that are largely plant-based, getting adequate sleep, stress reduction, and maintenance of weight,” says Dr. Bunch. Here, we explore the science behind dark chocolate’s benefits for the heart.
Cacao to Prevent Heart Diseases
Early signs that cacao is a heart-healthy food came from the unusually healthy elders of the island population of Kuna Indians in Panama. They drank large amounts of unprocessed cacao — about four cups each day — and were free of heart diseases, according to a study in the Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology. When they moved to cities, adopted Western ways, and gave up traditional cacao drinks, the Kuna developed high blood pressure in old age like the rest of us. Many studies, including 20 on blood pressure effects alone, show links between chocolate and markers of good heart health. Caution with cacao is advisable if you are prone to migraine headaches, because chocolate may be a migraine trigger. And people with chocolate allergies should not eat any type of cacao product. This includes raw cacao, cacao nibs or powder, dark chocolate, or milk chocolate.
Powers Heart and Blood Vessel Cells
Seeds of the Theobroma cacao plant, the source of dark chocolate, are rich in active compounds known as antioxidants. Dark chocolate is in the top 10 dietary sources of antioxidants, along with seasonings like cloves, mint, anise, cacao powder, and berries like black chokeberry and black elderberry, according to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Dark chocolate is also rich in bioactive flavanols and theobromine. These have good effects on the cells of our hearts and blood vessels, found researchers at the University of Mississippi. A caveat if you are watching your fat intake: One ounce of dark chocolate, though low in cholesterol at only 2 mg, has about 9 gm of fat. “In general, the health benefits outweigh the risk of the additional calories,” says Bunch. “When you consume dark chocolate that is more than 70 to 80 percent pure, the calories are relatively low,” he adds. In less concentrated forms of chocolate — such as white or milk chocolate — other ingredients add lots of calories, and there are no documented heart benefits.
Boosts Blood Circulation
More evidence for the antioxidant benefits of dark chocolate comes from a July 2014 study carried out in Rome and published in the Journal of the American Heart Association. The research showed that eating dark chocolate helped people who have peripheral artery disease, PAD, walk farther and longer. PAD decreases blood flow to the arms and legs. Because of this, patients often have painful cramping and difficulty with exercise, even with walking. In the study, people with PAD who ate 40 gm (1.5 oz.) of dark chocolate a day were able to walk 11 percent farther and for 15 percent longer than people who ate the same amount of milk chocolate. The dark chocolate used in the study contained more than 85 percent cacao and was rich in active compounds known as polyphenols. Researchers looked at markers of oxidative stress in the blood, and found improvement for those who had the dark chocolate.