Is Eating Chocolate Actually Good for You? Researchers Seem to Think So!

Despite a bad rap for causing weight gain and loosely being associated with acne, Chocolate is the ultimate comfort food for many.  Americans spend $10 billion annually on chocolaty treats.  For many, it is a sure-fire relief in times of stress, a reliable source of consolation in times of disappointment, and a mood-enhancer and romance-magnifier in more positive circumstances.

But is it at all healthy?  If you consume lots of it, obviously not; but the next time you savor a piece of chocolate, you may not have to feel so guilty about it. Countless studies document a host of medically proven ways in which chocolate — good chocolate, which is to say dark chocolate, with a cocoa percentage of around seventy per cent or more — really is good for us.

Fast facts on chocolate

  • Chocolate is made from tropical Theobroma cacao tree seeds.
  • Its earliest use dates back to the Olmec civilization in Mesoamerica.
  • After the European discovery of the Americas, chocolate became very popular in the wider world, and its demand exploded.
  • Chocolate consumption has long been associated with conditions such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, and hypertension.
  • Chocolate is believed to contain high levels of antioxidants.
  • Some studies have suggested chocolate could lower cholesterol levels and prevent memory decline.
  • Chocolate contains a large number of calories.
  • People who are seeking to lose or maintain weight should eat chocolate only in moderation.

Benefits

Chocolate receives a lot of bad press because of its high fat and sugar content. Its consumption has also been associated high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, and diabetes.

However, a review of chocolate’s health effects published in the Netherlands Journal of Medicine point to the discovery that cocoa – the key ingredient in chocolate –  contains biologically active phenolic compounds.  This has changed people’s views on chocolate, and it has stimulated research into how it might impact aging, and conditions such as oxidative stress, blood pressure regulation, and atherosclerosis.

It is important to note many of the possible health benefits mentioned below are gleaned  from single studies.

1)  Cholesterol

One study, published in The Journal of Nutrition, suggests that chocolate consumption might help reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, also known as “bad cholesterol.”

The researchers set out to investigate whether chocolate bars containing plant sterols (PS) and cocoa flavanols (CF) have any effect on cholesterol levels.

The authors concluded: “Regular consumption of chocolate bars containing PS and CF, as part of a low-fat diet, may support cardiovascular health by lowering cholesterol and improving blood pressure.”

2)  Cognitive function

Scientists at Harvard Medical School have suggested that drinking two cups of hot chocolate a day could help keep the brain healthy and reduce memory decline in older people.

The researchers found that hot chocolate helped improve blood flow to parts of the brain where it was needed.

Lead author, Farzaneh A. Sorond, said:

“As different areas of the brain need more energy to complete their tasks, they also need greater blood flow. This relationship, called neurovascular coupling, may play an important role in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”

Another study, published in 2016 in the journal Appetite, suggests eating chocolate at least once weekly could improve cognitive function.

Flavanols are thought to reduce memory loss in older people, and the anti-inflammatory qualities of dark chocolate have been found beneficial in treating brain injuries such as concussion.

Research has shown that when elderly people were given specially prepared cocoa extracts which was high in flavanols, their cognitive function greatly improved. The only problem is that when it comes to eating chocolate, the percentage of those cocoa flavanols is much reduced due to the processing and the addition of eggs, sugar and milk.

3)  Heart disease

Lots of studies reveal that the flavonoids in chocolate can help your veins and arteries to stay supple. Over 7 studies followed 114,000 participants who were given a few servings of dark chocolate a week. The results showed that their risk of getting a heart attack was reduced by about 37% while the chances of getting a stroke were 29% less when they had a higher consumption of chocolate.

Research published in The BMJ, suggests that consuming chocolate could help lower the risk of developing heart disease by one-third.  Based on their observations, the authors concluded that higher levels of chocolate consumption could be linked to a lower risk of cardiometabolic disorders.

A 2014 study found that dark chocolate helps restore flexibility to arteries while also preventing white blood cells from sticking to the walls of blood vessels – both common causes of artery clogging.

4)  Stroke

Canadian scientists, in a study involving 44,489 individuals, found that people who ate chocolate were 22 percent less likely to experience a stroke than those who did not. Also, those who had a stroke but regularly consumed chocolate were 46 percent less likely to die as a result.

A further study, published in the journal Heart in 2015, tracked the impact of diet on the long-term health of 25,000 men and women.  The findings suggested that eating up to 100 grams (g) of chocolate each day may be linked to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.

5)  Good for moms, fetal growth and development

Eating 30 g of chocolate every day during pregnancy might benefit fetal growth and development, according to a study presented at the 2016 Pregnancy Meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine in Atlanta, GA.

A Finnish study also found that chocolate reduced stress in expectant mothers, and that the babies of such mothers smiled more often than the offspring of non-chocolate-eating parents.

One of the complications of pregnancy, known as preeclampsia, can cause blood pressure can shoot up. Researchers have established that one of the chemicals in dark chocolate, theobromine, can stimulate the heart and help the arteries dilate. When pregnant women were given higher doses of chocolate, they had a 40% less chance of developing this complication.

6)  Athletic performance

Findings published in The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition suggest a little dark chocolate might boost oxygen availability during fitness training.

Another magical flavanol in chocolate is epicatechin. Mice were given this substance and they were much fitter and stronger than those mice on water only. Researchers say that to get the best results from your workout you have to limit the amount to only about half of one square of chocolate a day! If you have too much, it could undo the beneficial effects.

7)   It’s mineral rich

Dark chocolate is packed with beneficial minerals such as potassium, zinc and selenium, and a 100g bar of dark (70 per cent or more) choc provides 67 per cent of the RDA of iron.  It has almost all of your RDA for copper and manganese, contains over half your magnesium RDA and delivers about 10% of fiber.

8)  It reduces cholesterol

Consumption of cocoa has been shown to reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and raise levels of “good” cholesterol, potentially lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The Journal of Nutrition published an interesting article about the results of a study done to determine whether dark chocolate could have any effect on the LDL cholesterol levels. They found when subjects were given bars of dark chocolate with plant sterols and flavanols, they were getting lower scores on their cholesterol levels.

9)  It’s good for your skin

The flavanols in dark chocolate can protect the skin against sun damage.     One study conducted in London found that women who were given chocolate with a high flavanol content were able to withstand double the amount of UV light on their skins without burning, compared to those on lower doses.  Still, you are probably better off slapping on some sunscreen.

10) It can help you lose weight

Chocolate can help you lose weight. Really. Neuroscientist Will Clower says a small square of good choc melted on the tongue 20 minutes before a meal triggers the hormones in the brain that say, “I’m full”, cutting the amount of food you subsequently consume. Finishing a meal with the same small trigger could reduce subsequent snacking.

11) It may prevent diabetes

It sounds mad, but cocoa has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity. So dark chocolate – in moderation – might delay or prevent the onset of diabetes. One small study at the University of L’Aquila in Italy found that the right does of chocolate flavonoids can help the body’s metabolism and enhance insulin function.

12) Chocolate makes you feel better

Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which is the same chemical that your brain creates when you feel like you’re falling in love. PEA encourages your brain to release feel-good endorphins. These Endorphins play a key role in helping to prevent depression and other mental malaise.

Some chocolate lovers also add certain kinds of chocolate may be good for the soul: this is chocolate for which the raw materials have been grown with care by farmers who are properly rewarded for their work; then processed by people who take time and care in their work and finished by chocolatiers who love what they do. It is not mass-produced, and it may not be cheap. But it could be good for you, heart and soul.

13) It may help people with Alzheimer’s disease

As we know, the nerve pathways to the brain get damaged when Alzheimer’s disease strikes, causing severe loss in certain mental functions. It is fascinating to read about how one extract from cocoa, called lavado, can actually reduce the damage done to these vital pathways.

Results of a lab experiment, published in 2014, indicated that a cocoa extract, called lavado, might reduce or prevent damage to nerve pathways found in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. This extract could help slow symptoms such as cognitive decline.

14) It can help to lower your blood pressure

You may not know it but having the right amount of NO (Nitric Oxide) in your body can help your arteries to relax. That will, in turn help to take some of the pressure off them and the result is a lower BP count. Just another benefit of the dark chocolate flavanols which help to produce this vital Nitric Oxide.

15) It can also help you see better

University of Reading researchers were curious to see if dark chocolate flavanols could actually improve vision as they knew it certainly improved blood circulation in general. They decided to do a small experiment and gave two groups of volunteers some white and dark chocolate. The dark chocolate groups were doing better on vision tests afterwards.

16) It may help reduce fatigue

If you suffer from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome you should try adding chocolate to your daily diet. One group of sufferers were given a daily dose of chocolate for two months. They were less tired and the best news of all is that they did not put on any extra weight.

17) It may help to lower your Body Mass Index

There has been a lot of emphasis on how chocolate can actually reduce your BMI (Body Mass Index) which is how you measure up as regards your height versus your weight. One study took 1,000 Californians and they found that those who ate chocolate more often during the week had a lower BMI. Overall diet and exercise regimes were not factors which influenced this result.

18) It may help reduce your chances of getting cancer

As we have mentioned, the cocoa flavanols in dark chocolate have both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. These are important in keeping the actions of free radicals at bay. As we know, these are the protagonists when cancer starts to invade cells.

19) It may help your cough

Another marvelous effect of the theobromine chemical in chocolate is that it can calm a troublesome cough. Manufacturers are looking at this to produce safer cough syrups instead of using codeine which has some undesirable side effects.

20) It may help with blood circulation

Normally you take an aspirin to help prevent blood clotting and to improve circulation. Studies now show that chocolate can have a similar effect.

Light vs. dark chocolate

Chocolate’s antioxidant potential may have a range of health benefits. The higher the cocoa content, as in dark chocolate, the more benefits there are. Dark chocolate may also contain less fat and sugar, but it is important to check the label.

Manufacturers of light, or milk, chocolate, claim their product is better for health because it contains milk, and milk provides protein and calcium. Supporters of dark chocolate point to the higher iron content and levels of antioxidants in their product.

How do the nutrients compare?

Here are some sample nutrient levels in light and dark chocolate,

Nutrient Light (100 g) Dark (100 g)
Energy 531 kcal 556 kcal
Protein 8.51 g 5.54 g
Carbohydrate 58 g 60.49 g
Fat 30.57 g 32.4 g
Sugars 54 g 47.56 g
Iron 0.91 mg 2.13 mg
Phosphorus 206 mg 51 mg
Potassium 438 mg 502 mg
Sodium 101 mg 6 mg
Calcium 251 mg 30 mg
Cholesterol 24 mg 5 mg

The darker the chocolate, the higher the concentration of cocoa, and so, in theory, the higher the level of antioxidants there will be in the bar.

However, nutrients vary widely in commercially available chocolate bars, depending on the brand and type you choose. It is best to check the label if you want to be sure of the nutrients.

Risks and precautions

More research is needed to confirm eating chocolate can really improve people’s health.  In addition, chocolate bars do not contain only cocoa. The benefits and risks of any other ingredients, such as sugar and fat, need to be considered.

Weight gain: Some studies suggest that chocolate consumption is linked to lower body mass index (BMI) and fatness. However, chocolate can have a high calorie count due to its sugar and fat content. Anyone who is trying to slim down or maintain their weight should limit their chocolate consumption and check the label of their favorite product.

Sugar content: The high sugar content of most chocolate can also be a cause of tooth decay.

Migraine risk: Some people may experience an increase in migraines when eating chocolate regularly due to cocoa’s tyramine, histamine, and phenylalanine content. However, research is mixed.

Bone health: There is some evidence that chocolate might cause poor bone structure and osteoporosis. The results of one study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that older women who consumed chocolate every day had lower bone density and strength.

Heavy metals: Some cocoa powders, chocolate bars, and cacao nibs may contain high levels of cadmium and lead, which are toxic to the kidneys, bones, and other body tissues.

In 2017, Consumer Lab tested 43 chocolate products and found that nearly all cocoa powders contained more than 0.3 mcg cadmium per serving, the maximum amount recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Conclusion

All in all, eating chocolate can have both health benefits and risks. As with anything, moderation is key.  Research is continuing, and while experts have already found chocolate is good for the heart, circulation and brain, it has been suggested it may even greater benefit in such major heath challenges as autism, obesity and  diabetes.

If you are interested in speaking with a physician about the delicious benefits of chocolate or starting a workout to shed the unwanted effects of too much, find a doctor in the nation’s largest healthcare social ecosystem – HealthLynked.  Here, patients a connecting with physicians in unique ways to Improve HealthCare.

Ready to get Lynked?  Go to HealthLynked.com to sign up for Free!

 

Sources:

20 Health Benefits of Chocolate, Robert Locke

Health benefits and risks of chocolate, Natalie Butler, RD, LD