As Valentine’s Day approaches, Saint Joseph’s cardiologist Jason Reingold, MD, says go ahead and give your sweetheart some dark chocolate this year – to consume in moderation.
In the past year, more research has suggested a beneficial link between higher levels of chocolate consumption and the reduction of the risk of cardiovascular events. In one study, participants with the highest levels of chocolate intake had a 37 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29 percent reduction in stroke compared with participants who consumed the lowest levels of chocolate.
The secret behind chocolate’s beneficial effects on the heart is the effect of powerful micronutrients – flavonoids and phenols found naturally in the cocoa bean. These compounds function like antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables where free radicals are neutralized and destroyed, helping the body resist damage to cells. For example, flavanols help keep LDL cholesterol from becoming oxidized and clogging up coronary artery walls.
Studies also suggest that the phenols found in dark chocolate may help lower blood pressure by an average of 5 points for systolic and an average of 2 points for diastolic blood pressure. Improvement in blood pressure has been found in people who consumed as little as 3 1/2 ounces of dark chocolate every day for 15 days. But, the effect may be short lived as one study found that after only two days without chocolate blood pressure returned to previous higher levels.
Finally, researchers believe that dark chocolate can help improve endothelial function. This refers to the cells that line the blood vessels to help keep them dilated and elastic. Coupled with reducing inflammation, normal endothelial function promotes free flowing blood and prevents platelets from sticking together and forming a clot which can lead to stroke and heart attack.
Unfortunately, there can be a down side to the chocolate we eat every day. First, as chocolate is processed to eliminate the natural bitter flavor, the beneficial flavonoids and phenols are also removed. Second, the chocolate we consume is usually processed with excess fat and sugar. These extra calories can lead to obesity and diabetes, which can reverse any positive effects that chocolate may have on the heart.
So, like all things in life, the best solution is to eat dark chocolate in moderation:
- Look for a cocoa content of at least 65 percent and remember the higher the better in terms of flavonoids and phenols. Milk chocolate has lower levels of cocoa, and white chocolate does not contain any cocoa. Even worse, both have more fat and sugar than dark chocolate.
- Limit yourself to no more than 3 ounces (85 grams) a day
- Balance the extra calories from chocolate by eliminating calories from your diet
- Don’t wash down your chocolate with milk, as it may interfere with the absorption of antioxidants from chocolate
- Don’t forget about other sources of flavonoids and phenols like fruits, vegetables and red wine
About Dr. Reingold—Dr. Reingold is a board certified cardiologist who specializes in preventive cardiology at Saint Joseph’s Heart and Vascular Institute. He is the chairmen of research for the Womens Heart Center and active investigator within the Saint Joseph’s Research Institute. Dr. Reingold has been featured on CNN’s health program Sanjay Gupta, MD, and is well published in medical literature.