Valentine's Day Chocolates Good for Your Heart
This Valentine's Day, you may find yourself on the receiving end of a gift of chocolate. As long as it's chocolate of the dark variety, feel free to indulge — it's good for your heart.
In recent years, dark chocolate has achieved the status of a health food. Research suggests that in small doses, regular consumption of the tasty treat can help lower blood pressure, fight inflammation and hardening of the arteries, and reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease.
Antioxidant substances called flavonoids are likely responsible for the favorable effects. Flavonoids are found in all plants, including fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains. They're also abundant in the cocoa bean, from which chocolate is made. Like tea and wine, dark chocolate is a plant extract in which the beneficial substances are condensed and concentrated.
Because it takes so many cocoa beans to make a single serving, dark chocolate is especially rich in antioxidant flavonoids. Ounce for ounce, it typically contains more antioxidants than red wine, green tea and berries. Due to differences in preparation and processing, milk chocolate contains fewer antioxidant substances. White chocolate has very little in common with dark chocolate: It's made with cocoa butter and lots of sugar, and has no flavonoids at all.
Dark chocolate isn't as sweet as white chocolate or milk chocolate, and its flavor is often described as bittersweet. Flavonoids are actually bitter tasting compounds, so the more bitter the taste, the sweeter the health benefits.
In the body, flavonoids protect cells and tissues from damage inflicted by disease-causing free radicals. This is believed to be the primary mechanism of action behind dark chocolate's ability to improve cardiovascular health. In a study at the University of L'Aquila in Italy, scientists measured the effects of dark chocolate consumption on adults with high blood pressure. They found that among individuals who ate 3.5 ounces daily, blood pressure fell 10 percent to 15 percent, an effect similar to that of many blood pressure-lowering drugs. In addition, the researchers found that the volunteers experienced beneficial increases in insulin sensitivity, resulting in improved blood sugar regulation. Individuals who consumed white chocolate, on the other hand, did not exhibit similar changes in blood pressure or insulin sensitivity.
Scientists at Athens Medical School in Greece found that after eating dark chocolate, the function of cells lining blood vessel walls was significantly improved. The results of their research suggest that eating dark chocolate helps make blood vessels more flexible, protecting them from hardening of the arteries and reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that chemicals in cocoa beans have biochemical effects similar to aspirin in reducing blood platelet clumping. Blood platelets are responsible for forming clots in the arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
There's no doubt that dark chocolate is good for your heart, but it may also benefit your mind. If you feel happier and more relaxed after eating an ounce or two, it's not just your imagination. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), a compound found in high concentrations in the brains of calm, happy people. Although other foods, including sauerkraut, are richer sources of PEA, chocolate is unquestionably a more romantic package for the mood-enhancing compound.
Last year, Swiss researchers conducted a clinical trial to evaluate the emotional effects of consuming dark chocolate. The results of their study, published in the Journal of Proteome Research, showed that eating an ounce and a half of dark chocolate daily for two weeks effectively reduced levels of stress hormones in people who described themselves as "highly stressed."
If you're watching your weight, you may want to consume dark chocolate with a little restraint. The good news is that when eaten in moderation, the tasty treat isn't any more fattening than many other popular snack foods. A 2-ounce serving of dark chocolate has around 220 calories and about 15 grams of fat, compared to the 300 calories and 20 grams of fat in a 2-ounce serving of potato chips. Even better, treating yourself to a little dark chocolate may help dampen your desire for other high-calorie snacks.
Researchers at the University of Copenhagen found that volunteers experienced fewer cravings for salty, sweet and fatty foods for several hours after eating a serving of dark chocolate.
Chocolate has always been a symbol of love and indulgence. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a gift of dark chocolate this Valentine's Day, consider yourself loved, and indulge.