There’s a saying that money can’t buy happiness. It can, however, buy chocolate. And in my book that’s practically the same thing.
It used to be that chocolate, while delicious, decadent and rich was not the best food for health and wellness. In recent years, chocolate has gotten a lot of media coverage because it's believed that it may help protect your cardiovascular system.
So…are they (whoever they are…) saying chocolate is good for us?
It’s the best medical news in ages, I say. The reasoning behind this new thinking is that the cocoa bean is rich in a class of plant nutrients called flavonoids, which help protect plants from environmental toxins and help repair damage. When we eat foods rich in flavonoids, it appears that we also benefit from this same "antioxidant" power. And while vegetables and fruit are rich in these same flavonoids (and I love my veggies and fruit), doesn’t it just tickle you that chocolate is a rich source?
Antioxidants are believed to help our bodies’ cells resist damage caused by free radicals that are formed by our normal bodily processes, such as breathing and from environmental contaminants, like cigarette smoke or other air pollutants. If our bodies do not have enough antioxidants to combat the amount of oxidation that occurs, they can become damaged by free radicals and age more quickly. It’s like this: an increase in oxidation can cause low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as "bad" cholesterol to form plaque on the artery walls.
Flavanols, the main type of antioxidant found in cocoa and chocolate provide other benefits, too. Research shows that flavanols have other potential positive influences on vascular health, like improving blood flow to the brain and heart and making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot.
But hold onto your Snickers Bar. It’s not just any chocolate that can be a heart hero. It’s important to note that it’s dark chocolate, not white or milk that provides all the benefits, including lowering blood pressure, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association.
So what is it about dark chocolate? In a word, plant phenols; cocoa phenols to be precise. These are compounds that allow chocolate to help reduce blood pressure. Other findings show the superior qualities of dark chocolate by pointing out that milk in chocolate will interfere with the absorption of antioxidants, negating the potential heart health benefits.
Okay, so we get the whole antioxidant/blood pressure thing, right? But what about the fat?
You may be surprised (and delighted) to learn that the fat in chocolate isn’t as bad for you as once believed.
The fat in chocolate comes from cocoa butter and is made up of equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids, forms of saturated fat. We know that saturated fats are linked to increases in LDL cholesterol and the risk of heart disease.
But…and this is huge, chocolate lovers. Research shows that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, not raising or lowering it. And while palmitic acid does affect cholesterol levels, it only makes up one-third of the fat calories in chocolate.
This translates to mean we can’t eat chocolate, even dark chocolate, with abandon, but rather with some wisdom. Skip the gooey sticky specialties, dark chocolate or not. No way are they heart-healthy. And read the label! Keep your eyes open for those extra ingredients that add fat and calories…and maybe even some ingredients you would not want to eat. Stick to 70% or higher dark chocolate, plain and simple…and delicious.
While more research is required on how much chocolate you actually need for heart health benefits, (I’ll volunteer for that study…), for now, enjoy moderate portions of dark, non-dairy chocolate (about an ounce a serving) a few times per week to reap the rewards in both satisfaction and health.
But don’t be a dummy about this delicious news. Chocolate by no means replaces healthy foods like whole grains, veggies and beans, all antioxidant-rich and heart healthy. And while some say that chocolate is Mother Nature’s apology for broccoli, I say chocolate is merely a reward you can enjoy as a result of being proactive in your own health and wellness. Broccoli needs no apology, especially when it comes to your heart. But that’s another story.