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March 30, 2014 at 9:27 PMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Great Doctor-Sanctioned Excuses to Eat More Chocolate

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

I love chocolate. Maybe its chocolate's use as a reward in my childhood or maybe its just the fact that it tastes wonderful. Maybe this blog is simply justification to consume a food I love - maybe. However, I have come across some promising research. Turns out, this wonderful treat loved by so many has a number of great health benefits to offer!

First, Caution

Before we make the leap that I can eat the whole bag of Cadbury chocolate eggs on my nurse's desk and reap hoards of health benefits, let's touch on the reality and get perspective. The health benefits found in chocolate are strictly from cacao or cocoa which is the powder produced from toasting and grinding cacao. Cacao and cocoa are a far cry from a Hershey bar. 

In it's pure form, cacao is bitter and filmy. We make it taste good with milk and sugar (much like coffee). Whereas Hershey's milk chocolate bar is 11% cacao, most research on consumption that showed benefit occurred with at least 70%. Not only does the benefit of cacao get watered down considerably with milk chocolate, but plenty of unhealthy stuff gets mixed in to make it near completely unhealthy. If you want your chocolate to be healthy, it must be quite "dark" or high in cacao content-- at least 70%.

Heart Benefits

Multiple studies have shown that chocolate is rich in flavonoids, anti-oxidants with cardiovascular benefits. These flavonoids have been shown to promote health and flexibility of blood vessels. (Recent research presented this month revealed this is thanks to our gut bacteria breaking down the large chocolate compounds to smaller compounds which are absorbed into the blood to confer cardiovascular benefit.(1))  Anti-inflammatory properties have also been found which are important in cardiovascular disease prevention. In fact, there are many studies showing an association with regular cacao/cocoa consumption and reduction of heart disease:

  • Reduced Risk of Heart Failure: The most well-known occurred in Sweden over a nine year period following nearly 32,000 women. Most notable was the reduction in heart failure onset by over 30%. (2)
  • Reduced Risk of Heart Attack or Stroke: A German study which followed 20,000 subjects long term showed that eating 6 grams of chocolate per day reduced risk of heart attack or stroke by 39%. (3)

Help with Diabetes and Blood Pressure?

Too much candy may be the cause of diabetes for some. However, dark chocolate may actually reduce the body's resistance to insulin - a fundamental metabolic problem in adult onset diabetes. In a small Italian study, subjects consumed dark chocolate daily for 15 days. The study showed that the high flavanol content in the chocolate increased levels of a compound called nitric oxide.This not only reduced insulin resistance in the body, but also reduced blood pressure.

While small in its numbers, the study opened some important doors for the use of flavonoids to increase nitric oxide in the body which is known to improve blood sugar control and relax blood vessels. (4) To augment these findings, another study revealed that consumption of dark chocolate in obese individuals blunted rises in blood pressure with aerobic exercise.

Chocolate for Cough

Theobromine, a caffeine-like compound found in cocoa has been found to be helpful in treating cough. In fact, it has been shown in studies to be as effective as codeine, a narcotic cough suppressant, without the groggy side effects. Researchers hypothesize that it works directly on the vagus nerve that is responsible for generating cough. (5)  I am betting that chocolate tastes better than most cough medicines as well. 

More Benefits

A wide variety of other benefits have been found in consuming high-cacao chocolate. 

  • Skin: The antioxidant properties of flavonoids have been shown to benefit the skin in regards to skin repair and protection from the sun. 
  • Diarrhea Remedy:  Cocoa has been used as a home remedy for diarrhea for centuries in South America.  Recent research has bound that the flavonoids bind proteins and reduce fluid secretion in the small intestine, helping reduce water content in stool. 
  • Stress Reducer:  Chocolate has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels in times of stress (most of us do not need a scientific explanation for this). 
  • Menstrual Relief: The theobromine mentioned above also has diuretic properties making it somewhat helpful for bloating during menstruation. 

My Take:

Chocolate has some undeniable benefits to our health.  And it tastes really good.  This superfood, however, is a double-edged sword.  Most chocolate is adulterated with unhealthy substances to make it taste better, reducing the health benefits and even making it unhealthy.  So, eat chocolate, reap its health benefits, but keep it heavy on the cacao.

Sources

1. http://www.bbc.com/news/health-10986625

2. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/study-chocolate-could-reduce-heart-risk/

3. http://www.consultant360.com/exclusives/research-explains-chocolates-heart-benefits

4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18716168

5. http://www.fasebj.org/content/19/2/231.full

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