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The Healthy Side of Dark Chocolate

The dark truth about this decadent treat

Health benefits of chocolateDo your heart a favor: Eat a little chocolate.

Researchers have found that natural substances found in the cocoa bean, the bean that gives chocolate its chocolate-y goodness, have some interesting health benefits — especially for the heart. Maybe that's why chocolate is such a popular part of Valentine's Day traditions.

The benefits of antioxidants

Among commonly consumed foods, dark chocolate has one of the highest concentrations of plant-based nutrients called flavonoids. Found in many fruits and vegetables, flavonoids are natural antioxidants.

Antioxidants are important for good health because they protect cells from the damaging effects of unstable molecules known as free radicals, according to Christy C. Tangney, PhD, a clinical nutritionist at Rush and an expert on the effects of diet and nutrition on heart health.

Beyond the antioxidant qualities of dark chocolate, consuming this amazing and delicious bean has been shown in recent studies to do the following:

  • Lower cholesterol
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Inhibit platelet clumping (which can help avoid blood clots)

Choosing the right kind of chocolate

But don't think these benefits add up to a prescription for making chocolate a regular part of your diet — unless it’s dark chocolate and you eat it in moderation.

"The more processed the chocolate is, the lower the phytochemical content and the higher the calories and fat, especially saturated fats," says Tangney. "There is no doubt that dark chocolate can be incorporated into a healthy diet, just be aware of the extra calories."

The good news is that the naturally occurring fat found in the cocoa bean (not the fat added later to enhance the taste) may also be beneficial for the heart. One-third of the fat found in the bean is the same as the monounsaturated fat found in olive oil. This is yet another reason to eat the more concentrated dark chocolate.

While a wonderful treat, you should still think of chocolate as an occasional indulgence.

"Other choices for heart healthy phytochemical-rich treats that have less of a downside include whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables," says Tangney.

Flavonoid- and antioxidant-rich fruits like blueberries, raspberries, grapes and strawberries have the added benefit of being high in fiber and virtually fat free. Tangney also recommends tea — black, green or herbal — for a calorie-free way to get a dose of flavonoids and antioxidants.

Remember: Consume milk chocolate and chocolate-flavored desserts in extreme moderation. But a little snap of a dark chocolate bar — about three ounces — can be good for the body and the soul. This is one supplement that you won't forget to take.

February 2012