2018-02-01 / Health & Fitness

Dark chocolate for Valentine’s — a healthy choice

SUSAN SUMMERTON, OD

There are plenty of reasons to love chocolate.

A recent survey found that 70 percent of Americans plan on giving chocolate or other candy to a special someone on Valentine’s Day. Chocolate or cacao/cocoa is probably one of the best-loved foods available and is believed to have been around since 1900 B.C.

Cacao (chocolate’s purest form and raw) and cocoa (heated form) come with a host of surprising health benefits.

The cacao beans in the chocolate contain all the benefits. The two main antioxidants in cacao are flavonoids and polyphenols that help keep us healthy and promote longevity. In plants, flavonoids provide important protection such as shielding them from environmental toxins, and when we consume plant-based foods that are rich in flavonoids, we also get a lot of the same benefits the plant gets.

Following are some ways eating chocolate may benefit your health.

Heart health

Chocolate polyphenols can protect the lining of the blood vessels, reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke and may be involved in cholesterol control. There are more than 75 scientific articles looking at dark chocolate and blood pressure. The British Medical Journal reported the highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with a 37 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29 percent reduction in stroke compared with the lowest levels.

The American Academy of Neurology published an analysis of several studies on chocolate and stroke. A large study found people who ate one serving of chocolate per week were 22 percent less likely to have a stroke than people who ate no chocolate. Another study found people who ate 50 grams of chocolate once a week were 46 percent less likely to die following a stroke than people who did not eat chocolate.

Diabetes

Chocolate consumption may help in diabetes. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported an Italian study showing the consumption of dark chocolate improves glucose metabolism.

Brain health

Chocolate can protect and enhance brain function and may prevent memory decline. Scientists at Harvard Medical School suggest that drinking two cups of hot chocolate a day could help keep the brain healthy and reduce memory decline in older people. Medical News Today reported that “In a further study, researchers found that a cocoa extract – called lavado – could, perhaps, reduce or prevent damage to nerve pathways found in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. This means that symptoms of the condition — such as cognitive decline – could be slowed.”

Stress

Chocolate is a source of antidepressant phenethylamine (PEA) molecules. Chocolate boosts the production of “feel-good” chemicals called endorphins by nourishing the brain with the anandamide, also found naturally in the brain and called the “bliss molecule.” Two chocolate ingredients inhibit the natural breakdown of anandamide, which could extend the feelings of well-being. The Journal of the American College of Cardiology reported that eating dark chocolate a couple of hours before a stressful event may blunt the rise in stress hormones.

Weight loss

Dark chocolate helps a person feel fuller compared with light chocolates because it contains more magnesium that may lower appetite. Researchers from the University of Granada, Spain, have found that chocolate consumption is associated with lower central and total body fat levels in adolescents.

Pregnancy

A study presented at the 2016 Pregnancy Meeting of the Society for Maternal- Fetal Medicine reported that eating 30 grams of chocolate every day during pregnancy may benefit fetal growth and development. Previous studies also have suggested that moderate chocolate consumption during pregnancy may lower the risk of preeclampsia.

Before you go and indulge in your favorite candy bar it’s important to emphasize the benefits of chocolate are found in real cacao. The higher the cacao/ cocoa content, the more health benefits from the compounds. Milk chocolate and white chocolate have virtually none of these health benefits. Studies have shown that the proteins in milk might reduce the absorption of the healthy antioxidants from cocoa. White “chocolate” is not really chocolate at all because it doesn’t have contain any cocoa solids, only cocoa butter. The darker the chocolate the better; the best contains 60 percent or more cacao.

The information in this column is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

Susan Summerton, OD, is a board-certified optometrist at Tyson Eye, a certified nutrition specialist and an adjunct professor of nutrition at Hodges University. She can be reached at susan.summerton@tysoneye.com.

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