A Little Chocolate Does You Good!

There is no need to feel bad about indulging in your guilty pleasure any longer. Modern research is discovering more and more health benefits offered by chocolate.

Cocoa is very rich in flavonols, a class of polyphenols which are powerful antioxidants. These antioxidants are also found in red wine. Antioxidants are substances that hunt down free radicals and neutralize them.

Free radicals are damaging compounds in the body that cause harm to cell membranes, damage DNA (genetic material), and can even cause cell death. Free radicals occur naturally in the body, but are increased in quantity when we are exposed to environmental toxins such as ultraviolet light, radiation, cigarette smoke, and air pollution. Free radicals are thought to contribute to the aging process as well as the development of diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

The antioxidants in chocolate help to keep our heart healthy by inhibiting the oxidation of LDL “bad” cholesterol.

Oxidized cholesterol is most harmful to our health because it is more likely to accumulate in our artery walls, contributing to the development of atherosclerosis.

The polyphenols in chocolate can inhibit the oxidation of cholesterol for up to two hours after consumption.

They also help to keep our blood vessels healthy by assisting the production of nitric oxide in the artery walls. Magnesium also helps to dilate arteries, improving blood flow to the heart and assisting with circulation. Nitric oxide acts to dilate our blood vessels and helps to prevent cholesterol and other substances from adhering to our arteries. Even though chocolate contains a fair bit of saturated fat, it does not raise cholesterol levels. The main fat in cocoa is stearic acid; in our liver it is converted into the heart healthy monounsaturated fat oleic acid. This is the same fat that is found in high amounts in olive oil. Studies have also shown that cocoa improves insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, therefore helping to protect us against diabetes.

The darker the chocolate, the higher its antioxidant content

Dark chocolate can contain approximately 500 milligrams of polyphenols per 100 grams, white chocolate contains none, and milk chocolate is somewhere in between.

Think of dark chocolate like red wine, and white chocolate like white wine.

Milk can inhibit the absorption of antioxidants in chocolate, which is why milk chocolate is nowhere near as beneficial as dark chocolate. The greater the percentage of cocoa solids stated on the label, the better the chocolate is for you.

Obviously chocolate is high in calories, so you should watch your consumption if you are struggling with your weight. Being overweight will negate many of the benefits to the cardiovascular system that chocolate provides.

The biggest problem with chocolate is its high sugar content. You should not consume more than 3 oz per day of dark chocolate if you are not overweight; and even less if you are overweight. Too much sugar weakens your immune system and increases your chance of developing diabetes; reversing the good effects of the flavonols in chocolate.

For more information about antioxidants and how to protect yourself against heart disease, see the book “Cholesterol the Real Truth” by Sandra Cabot MD.

References:
Inhibition of LDL oxidation by cocoa, Lancet, November 1996; 348(2):1514
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 81, No. 3, 541-542, March 2005
Grundy S. Influence of stearic acid on cholesterol metabolism relative to other long-chain fatty acids.
Am J Clin Nutr 1994;60 (suppl.):986S-90S