Heart Your Heart: The Health Benefits Of Eating Chocolate

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So here’s your warning that Valentine’s Day is tomorrow, for those of you without a calendar. If there’s someone in your life with whom you have intimate relations and they’d be upset at your forgetting that type of thing, it’s time to get yourself to the nearest store.

If instead you view Valentine’s Day as the day proceeding when candy is deeply discounted, then you and I can high-five as we skate down the aisles at Walgreens, picking up Russell Stover chocolate assortments for 90% off on Sunday.

The real secret is that whether you’re in love or not, chocolate’s more beneficial to our hearts than as a comfort food. Flavonols, found in cacao plants, are a type of flavonoids — the things that help protect plants from environmental toxins — and depending on how cocoa is processed, contain a varying degree of antioxidants. This can improve blood flow to your heart and brain, decreasing your chances of stroke and cancer.

It’s all about reducing the free radicals — which is not the band I was thinking of, apparently — in your body that can be caused by stuff like breathing. (Or smog. Or smoking.) Antioxidants are believed to help the body’s cells resist the damage that occurs during oxidation, and if you don’t have enough, your body can become damaged by free radicals. (I really hate that song.)

Of course, the type of chocolate you’re eating makes a difference. Cocoa powder (not the dutch-processed kind) is low-fat due to the way it’s produced. Milk chocolate contains a lot of butter, sugar, and calories. To be beneficial, the chocolate you eat should contain at least 50% cocoa, and American milk chocolate is only required to have 10%. Dark chocolate is more like 70% cocoa solids (and “semi-sweet” is about 40%.) So dark chocolate is the most beneficial type of sweet you can eat.

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Here’s a hit list of just some of the ways eating a small amount of dark chocolate per week can benefit you:

  • Cocoa reduces the amount of plaque that will stick to your arterial walls. This reduces the risk of clotting and stroke. Canadian scientists carried out a study involving 44,489 people and found that people eating chocolate were 22% less likely to suffer a stroke than those who didn’t.
  • Some studies have shown that your risk of heart attack can be cut by up to a third.
  • Hot chocolate consumed twice a day has been shown to help improve blood flow in working areas of the brain. Since poor blood flow can lead to brain damage that causes dementia and Alzheimer’s in older people, cocoa can increase blood supply to the brain, leading to better cognitive functions.
  • A study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that eating chocolate can lower your “bad” cholesterol, boost your “good” cholesterol, and improve your blood pressure.
  • An ounce of dark chocolate contains 2 grams of fiber.
  • The improvement in blood circulation can protect against type 2 diabetes. Flavonols can help reduce insulin resistance, and dark chocolate has a low glycemic index, meaning it won’t cause huge spikes in blood sugar levels.
  • An ounce of dark chocolate contains 200mg of theobromine, an alkaloid that can harden your tooth enamel and suppress coughs.

Of course, plant flavonols aren’t only found in chocolate. They’re in fruits and vegetables, for instance. So if you’re not eating healthy at all, don’t think upping your chocolate consumption is going to eliminate the risk of diabetes and heart attack.

Other flavonol-rich foods include cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions, tea and red wine. But if you’re looking for a tasty alternative to gnawing on walnuts, a square or two of dark chocolate a day can help. Just remember to brush your teeth.