Chocolate Good for The Heart

Armen Hareyan's picture
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Valentine's Day is known for chocolate treats given to sweethearts. Over the last few years, medical studies have shown chocolate can lower blood pressure and reduce atherosclerosis. It seems too good to be true, but there is a reason for the health benefits of chocolate.

Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which are technically a fruit, from the cacao tree. Many fruits and plant products contain flavonoids, a group of diverse chemicals that help plants repair injury and inhibit bacterial growth. Flavonoids are found in strawberries, blueberries, cranberries, tea, red wine, peanuts, apples, onions, nuts, red pepper, celery, tomatoes and citrus fruits in different amounts.

In chocolate, flavonoids are found in highest quantities in cocoa powder and dark chocolate. A little more than an ounce of dark chocolate has about the flavonoid content of a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Cocoa powder has about twice as much.

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In humans, flavonoids have diverse effects. Aspirin is recommended to reduce the risk of heart attack in susceptible people because it inhibits platelets from sticking together to form a blood clot in a heart artery. Flavonoids in chocolate do a better job of blocking this platelet effect than aspirin. Also, flavonoids help arteries stay dilated to reduce blood pressure and maintain blood flow.

Some of these flavonoids also work as antioxidants - the chemicals that neutralize free radicals, the by-products of bodily processes that can contribute to heart disease, cancer and the aging process. Some types of flavonoids have been shown to reduce the oxidation of the so-called "bad" or LDL cholesterol. This should limit the tendency of LDL cholesterol to stick to and clog artery walls.

This news unfortunately does not justify polishing off that 10-pound box of Valentine candy. The benefits only come from regular chocolate, particularly dark chocolate with high levels of cocoa -- white chocolate has little or no cocoa in it so it does not have this benefit. Most chocolate consumed in America has less cocoa than in Europe and other parts of the world so the benefit is not as great. Solid chocolate has more benefit than filled candies, which may have little or none.

Chocolate does have calories however - from fat and sugar. Even though the fat does not raise the LDL cholesterol directly, it can contribute to weight gain, which can influence total cholesterol and can lead to diabetes. Four ounces of chocolate typically has 220 calories. A similar amount of fruit may have fewer than 100 calories. Plus fruit has fiber, vitamins and other nutrients not found in chocolate.

Nonetheless, chocolate need not be considered a completely guilty pleasure. The bottom line is that for those who eat a balanced diet and who exercise and maintain a normal weight, chocolate in moderation not only tastes good, it's good for health.

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