Monday, February 16, 2009

Is Dark Chocolate All It's Cracked Up to Be?

By Dr. Chistopher Mohr, RD

Got high blood pressure? Pop a bon bon. Pre-disposed to heart disease? Forget oats, reach for a candy bar. At least that’s what some may suggest.

Alright, that might be somewhat of a stretch, although sometimes we hear the message that “chocolate is healthy” and rationalize that chocolate bar or candy bar on a daily basis.

Research has shown, however, that dark chocolate – but not milk chocolate or white chocolate – has heart health properties.

February is heart health month, after all. But with Valentine’s Day comes the question of the health benefits of chocolate.

So the question is – does a chocolate a day really keep the doctor away?

Let’s take a look some of the data that are out there.

Research published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, and others have examined this question – and the answers are promising.

It starts with the antioxidant properties of dark chocolate. Antioxidants can be thought of as scavengers in the body that gobble up dangerous free radicals and other destructive molecules.

Think of antioxidants like Pac-Man – and the destructive molecules as the dots in the game that Pac-Man gobbles.

Of course antioxidants aren’t just in dark chocolate – fruits, veggies, tea, and other foods are all loaded, which is why we suggest you eat a varied diet, including those foods regularly. In fact, while dark chocolate is a great source of certain antioxidants, and one of the highest sources of flavonoids and catechins, other foods are better sources of other antioxidants. That’s why variety in the diet is king.

A recent study published in the Southern Medical Journal examined the effectS of dark chocolate on inflammation, lipid levels, and the stickiness of the blood (known as platelet reactivity) in 28 individuals.

They fed the individuals 1 oz of dark chocolate daily for 7 days. The results:

  • LDL (the bad cholesterol) dropped by 6%
  • HDL increased by 9%
  • hsCRP (inflammatory marker) decreased
While this was a short study, it can be combined with the other positive data that are available to support the inclusion of dark chocolate into the diet. Other studies suggest including dark chocolate into a varied diet lowers blood pressure too.

Take home points:

  • This isn’t a “free pass” to gorge on chocolate daily – it still contains lot of calories and fat, so if you want to include chocolate, keep those calories in check, but reducing your intake elsewhere.
  • Aim for chocolate that has at least 70% cacao (it will tell you this on the package). Our preference are 100% cacao nibs – add them to yogurt for added crunch and you’ve got a great treat that’s healthy, yet not loaded down with sugar.
  • Dark chocolate does not mean King Size Twix, Heath Bars, Reeses Peanut Butter Cups, etc. It means quality chocolate, without the added junk.
  • Limit that intake to about 1 oz per day.
  • Make sure the addition of chocolate is part of all the other heart health diet strategies we’ve talked about, including exercising daily as well.

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