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A Hearty Chocolate

HIGHLIGHTS:

  • Studies have found that people who eat approximately 50-100g of chocolate (300-600 calories) 1 or 2 times a week could reduce their risk of an early death due to heart disease when compared with those who don’t eat chocolate. This is because the main ingredients in chocolate help to aid circulation and strengthen the cardiovascular system.
  • The most beneficial type of chocolate is dark chocolate, which has a cocoa content of at least 70-85%.
  • Although dark chocolate contains low levels of sugar and milk, this doesn’t mean that it is milk- and sugar-free, so consumption of chocolate should always be carefully moderated.

Along with red roses, chocolate is a hugely popular gift given on Valentine’s Day. This may be due to the belief that chocolate increases sexual prowess, or because it is well suited as a gift for a sweetheart due to its sweet smell and luscious texture. However, did you know that as well as being pleasing to the eye and tasty on the tongue, chocolate can also be full of benefits for your heart?

Chocolate can be good for the heart

Chocolate contains chemicals which are good for our health and which can help prevent numerous types of illness:

  1. Caffeine: Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, increasing circulation to various bodily organs.
  2. Theobromine: This chemical can help reduce blood pressure, stimulate heart function and reduce the risk of myocardial infarction.
  3. Flavonoid: This chemical belongs to the polyphenol group of antioxidants. It promotes blood vessel strength in the heart and brain, and reduces the risk of development of various diseases.

Research into the benefits of chocolate

Research undertaken in Iran involved looking at a sample group of 60 diabetics who also suffered from high blood pressure. One group was asked to eat 25g of dark chocolate (with a 70–85% cocoa content) each day over a 2-month period, while the other was given the same amount of white chocolate. It was discovered that the group who only ate dark chocolate experienced a significant reduction in blood pressure. Researchers believe that this decrease in blood pressure resulted from the high concentration of theobromine found in dark chocolate. For those who may be worried about gaining weight as a result of chocolate consumption, moderated consumption of dark chocolate comes highly recommended. Another study, which also took place in Iran, asked a sample group of 114 people diagnosed as obese to eat 20–40g of high (74%) cocoa content chocolate per day, over a period of 2 months. The results showed that the chocolate did not play a significant role in increasing cholesterol, saturated fats or triglycerides in blood samples from this group.

Research carried out in Sweden monitored patients who had suffered a heart attack, with a specific focus on diabetics. 1,169 subjects were asked to fill out questionnaires related to their chocolate consumption over a 12-month period. Researchers then used the results to classify them based on their chocolate consumption and followed their progress for the next 8 years. The results of this study showed that those who ate chocolate regularly were less likely to suffer a fatal heart attack than those who did not eat any chocolate at all, although the relationship between chocolate consumption and fatal heart attacks was dose dependent. The group who consumed chocolate no more than once a month reduced their risk by 27%, those who consumed chocolate once a week saw a 44% risk reduction, and people who ate chocolate two or more times per week cut their risk of fatal heart attack by 66% (when compared with those who did not consume any chocolate at all).

The British Medical Journal published a study in 2012 showing that eating dark chocolate every day for 10 years helped to protect against non-fatal coronary artery disease and strokes for 70 in every 10,000 people, and prevented potentially fatal occurrences in 15 of every 10,000 people. The study involved 2,013 people who were categorized as being at risk of coronary artery disease due to the presence of the following factors: a waist circumference exceeding 39 inches, an average blood pressure measurement of 141.11mm, an average cholesterol level of 239 mg/Dl, blood glucose levels not yet at the point to be considered diabetic and an average age of 53.6 years. All of those studied consumed the equivalent of 100 grams of polyphenol – a key ingredient found in dark chocolate – per day. The study concluded that eating chocolate “may” reduce the long-term risk of death resulting from coronary artery disease. However, as this study was predominantly epidemiological in its nature, its conclusions should only be used as moderately weighted evidence in future discussions on the topic. Moreover, eating chocolate to excess without regular exercising could actually lead to higher cholesterol and raised blood glucose levels in some people, although there is not currently any evidence to confirm this link.

Chocolate can help you feel good

In addition to the benefits which chocolate can provide in terms of heart health, it also contains the following beneficial substances:

  • Anandamide (derived from the Sanskrit word for happiness): This substance is responsible for reducing pain, regulating the body’s core temperature and helping us to feel great.
  • Phenylethylamine (PEA): This is a chemical that helps the body produce neurotransmitters which aid in stress relief. It is viewed as playing a key role in chocolate’s feel-good factor, and some believe it acts as an aphrodisiac.

Selecting the right type of chocolate and moderating consumption

The most beneficial type of chocolate is the dark variety, containing at least 70–85% cocoa. It is recommended that consumption be limited to 50–100 grams per day, 1–2 days a week for best results in terms of heart health.

Although dark chocolate only contains small amounts of sugar and milk, this does not mean that they are not there at all, so chocolate should only be eaten in moderation. Regular exercise and a healthy diet are also crucial for good health. Chocolate is a good choice for a pre-workout snack, as a form of stress relief, or to be given as a gift on a special occasion such as Valentine’s Day.


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