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By this point, you’ve probably heard that chocolate, or at least dark chocolate, is good for you. Like red wine, chocolate contains powerful antioxidants, important for a healthy heart.
But the story of chocolate is much more nuanced than that, and so are the health benefits associated with chocolate consumption. With consumption dating back to 1600 B.C., people have long used chocolate as a treatment for everything from mental fatigue and fever to anemia and tuberculosis1. In recent years, researchers have started to re-examine the power of chocolate - with many positive findings.
Chocolate appears to have numerous benefits for the blood and arteries. Several studies indicate that chocolate helps prevent blood platelets from sticking together, a hallmark of health troubles such as atherosclerosis.
One study, conducted on healthy volunteers, showed that the individuals who consumed 100 g of dark chocolate had reduced platelet aggregation, as compared to the control group1. Another double-blind study revealed similar results: consuming 40 g of dark chocolate a day decreased platelet adhesion and improved coronary vascular function1.
In addition to preventing the blood platelets from sticking together, chocolate also seems to have a positive impact on people’s blood pressure. The Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University investigated the impact of chocolate on individuals with hypertension. The study found that the people who ate 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate every day for two weeks saw a significant reduction in their blood pressure levels2. Several other studies support the results, most notably the Zutphen Elderly Study, which found that cocoa consumption was inversely related to blood pressure1.
All the improved blood flow also appears to be good for brain functioning. One study found that drinking a cocoa beverage increased blood flow to the gray matter of the brain for up to three hours1. The results could be especially important for elderly people, for whom improved blood flow to the brain may protect against dementia and stroke1.
One of the most surprising recent findings suggests that chocolate can even help improve weight management. The University of California, San Diego, questioned more than 1,000 healthy individuals about their chocolate consumption, as well as their diet and exercise habits3. The people who ate chocolate regularly had a lower BMI, or body mass index, than their counterparts3. In addition, the individuals who consumed chocolate on a regular basis had lower BMIs in spite of the of the fact that they did not exercise more than the non-chocolate consumers3.
In mice, chocolate even appears to improve endurance. The School of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, examined the effects of epicatechin, a component of cacao. The researchers divided the 25 mice into four groups: one group consuming just water, the second group consuming water and exercising in addition, a third group consuming epicatechin, and the fourth group consuming epicatechin and exercising. After a 15 day period, the mice that consumed epicatechin showed significantly improved treadmill performance and enhanced muscle fatigue resistance than the mice of the water and exercise group. Furthermore, the epicatechin and exercise group yielded the best performing mice.
While more research, preferably on humans, is needed, the mice studies suggest that epicatechin could improve endurance capacity during exercise.
While researchers are still working to understand why chocolate has a wide range of health benefits, most scientists point to the high concentration of flavanols in cocoa as the responsible ingredient. Flavanols, a particular kind of antioxidant, are especially prevalent in plant-based products, such as tea, berries, and especially chocolate1.
But before chocolate-lovers rejoice, it is important to be aware of the type of chocolate consumed. Unfortunately, most chocolate bought in stores contain highly processed cocoa, as well as significant amounts of fat, sugar and milk. As a result, the potency and the power of the flavanols likely decreases1.
To get the benefits of cocoa, choose a chocolate that has been minimally processed, such as non-alkalized dark chocolate. And happy eating!
1. Circulation: “Cocoa and cardiovascular Health.” 2009; 119: 1433-1441.
2. The Health Magazine: “Chocolate can do good things for your heart, skin, and brain.” December 22, 2006.
3. ABC News: “Snacking on chocolate linked to low BMI.” March 26, 2012.
4. PubMed: “Epicatechin enhances fatigue resistance and oxidative capacity in mouse muscle.” July 25, 2011.