With Christmas around the corner, we are all looking forward to spending time with friends and family. We often think of it as a tradition or perhaps a must-do. But we should be reminding ourselves that connecting at the heart level with loved ones is good for the mind and body and now more then ever, we need to make connections and re-establish old ones. Christmas is also traditionally a time of year for lots of goodies! And one favorite is CHOCOLATE! But can we still indulge and be healthy? Yes, we can, because dark chocolate does have some health benefits, especially for the heart.
The History of Chocolate
Dark chocolate has been around for over 3,000 years. Around 1900 B.C in Central and South America it was consumed as a drink. Later, it was also made into a drink for the Aztecs and Mayans for ceremonial purposes. The Spanish encountered chocolate in the early 1500s and brought it back to Europe.
Where Does Chocolate Come From?
Chocolate is made from the fruit of cacao trees, which are native to Central and South America. The fruits are called pods and each pod contains around 40 cacao beans. The beans are dried and roasted to create cocoa beans.
Most dark chocolate is high in flavonoids, particularly a subtype called flavanols that is associated with a lower risk of heart disease. Some studies suggest chocolate or cocoa consumption is associated with a lower risk of insulin resistance and high blood pressure in adults.
What are Flavanoids and Flavanols?
Flavonoids are various compounds found naturally in many fruits and vegetables. They’re also in plant products like wine, tea, and chocolate. There are six different types of flavonoids found in food, and each kind is broken down by your body in a different way.
What do Flavanoids do?
Flavonoids are rich in antioxidant activity and can help your body ward off everyday toxins. Including more flavonoids in your diet is a great way to help your body stay healthy and potentially decrease your risk of some chronic health conditions.
Different flavonoids can help the body in different ways. For one, including foods with flavonoids in your diet may be an effective way to help manage high blood pressure. At least five subtypes of flavonoids have a demonstrable effect on lowering high blood pressure, according to a reviewTrusted Source published in 2015.
Also, the flavonoids found in tea, coffee, and soy may help lower your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. One study published in the Journal of Translational MedicineTrusted Source found that people who consumed higher levels of flavonoids as part of their diet had a lower risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event. However, more research is needed to prove the cardiovascular benefits of flavonoids.
When we look at cardiovascular health and the connection to dark chocolate there are 2 factors to consider – blood pressure and cholesterol.
How Does Dark Chocolate Affect Blood pressure?
The flavanols in dark chocolate stimulate nitric oxide production in the body. Nitric oxide causes blood vessels to dilate, or widen, which improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure.
A 2015 studyTrusted Source investigated the effects of chocolate consumption in 60 people with type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. The researchers found that participants who ate 25 grams (g) of dark chocolate daily for 8 weeks had significantly lower blood pressure than those who ate the same quantity of white chocolate.
The findings of a 2017 reviewTrusted Source showed that the beneficial effects of dark chocolate on blood pressure might be more significant in older people and those with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, as opposed to younger, healthy individuals.
How Does Dark Chocolate Affect Cholesterol?
Dark chocolate also contains certain compounds, such as polyphenols and theobromine, that may lower levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in the body and increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Doctors often refer to LDL cholesterol as “bad cholesterol” and HDL cholesterol as “good cholesterol.”
A 2017 study reported that eating dark chocolate for 15 days raised HDL cholesterol levels in people living with HIV. However, dark chocolate consumption did not affect LDL cholesterol levels in the study participants.
Shopping for Dark Chocolate
- Fair trade sourcing means not only are workers paid fairly but also, they have safe and environmentally friendly working conditions.
- Dig dark chocolate. Grab a bar with 70% cocoa or higher (more cocoa equals more flavonoids). If dark chocolate tastes too bitter for you, dark milk chocolate is a pretty sweet compromise—it has less sugar and more cocoa than traditional milk chocolate, which may have as little as 10%. If it says “milk chocolate” but has a cocoa percentage of 38% or higher, you’ll know it’s dark milk.
- Read the ingredients. Chocolate, cocoa, or cacao should appear first in the ingredient list, meaning there’s more of it by weight. If sugar is firs on the list or you see unfamiliar ingredients, steer clear, says Lisa R. Young, Ph.D., R.D.N., an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University and the author of Finally Full, Finally Slim.
- Know your source. Dutch-processed cocoa tends to have a reduced flavonoid content because of how the chocolate is processed, while one recent study found that cocoa beans from Colombia had the highest flavonoid content, likely because of things like plant variety and geography.
As a retired registered massage therapist, I’ve always been interested in health. I grew up loving sports so that carried into my adult life in my chosen career paths and in my personal life. I now stay active with weight training, hiking and biking. My professional life has always been in health care. This has inspired me to seek out and adopt a life of natural health and wellness.