We’ve been hearing it for some time now, but recent medical studies seem to be confirming it: chocolate is not only delicious, but it may also be good for your brain and your heart!
According to a BBC News story , researchers have now concluded that regular consumption of chocolate is not only a good source of antioxidants for the body, it may also have a positive effect on reducing the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. What’s more, high doses of chocolate may be even more beneficial in this regard.
The research showing this was a review of several previous studies, dealing with data from over 100,000 patients, and conducted by scientists at the University of Cambridge. It compared the risk to the brain and heart in two groups: the first reported eating lower levels of chocolate (fewer than two bars per week); the second ate high levels (more than two bars per week). The results were reported in a posting on the Web site of the British Medical Journal . They reportedly showed a 29 percent reduction in stroke in those consuming low levels of chocolate. However, in those eating higher levels the reduction in cardiovascular disease soared to 37 percent, an increase of almost a third.
The researchers were of course quick to note that “excessive consumption” would result in other illnesses, including weight gain and Type 2 diabetes. They said the data suggested that chocolate might someday be used to protect from heart problems and stroke … if the sugar and fat content of chocolate bars could be reduced.
One of the researchers, Dr Oscar Franco, said chocolate was known to decrease blood pressure. “We found a potential link between chocolate consumption and prevention of heart disease,” he said. “At this point we are in the early stages of research,” he added. However, he noted, there have not been any clinical trials to see if this association is real. He told the BBC the findings were “promising,” but that further research was needed to confirm any protective effect. For those who do eat chocolate, he recommended they should “avoid binge-eating” and eat “small amounts [of chocolate] on a regular basis.”
Meanwhile, a British Heart Foundation spokesperson was quoted as declaring this to be a dubious route to good health and healing. “If you want to reduce your heart disease risk,” said the BHF’s Victoria Taylor, “there are much better places to start than at the bottom of a box of chocolates.”
Of course, chocolate has been getting good press for some time now, especially in its darker forms. A study in Boston in 2010 demonstrated that higher cocoa content in dark chocolate was directly associated with better heart health, especially in older women. The results were reported in the journae l of the American Heart Association, and had examined over 30,000 Swedish women, between the ages of 48 and 83, over a nine-year period. According to the study results, those who eat chocolate once or twice a week may cut their risk of heart failure by a third.
Oddly enough, and seemingly contrary to the more recent British study, those eating more chocolate more often showed no noticeable change in heart problems. However, this may have been due to the fact that the Swedish women were eating milk chocolate, even though it had a somewhat enhanced cocoa-content of 30 percent. The subjects in the more recent study were consuming darker chocolate, with cocoa-contents of 60 to 70 percent, at least twice that amount. This may have led to a more effective result with more frequent consumption.
The BHF’s Ms. Taylor was similarly skeptical of this study, and was quoted as saying, “Whilst antioxidants in chocolate may be helpful to your heart, they can also be found in fruit and vegetables—foods which don’t come with the saturated fat and high calories.”
The beneficial effects of chocolate (especially in its darker, less sweet forms) are largely due to the presence of flavonoids, compounds that can lower blood pressure and protect against coronary artery disease. The negative aspects include the high levels of sugar and fat in chocolate, which can make people put on weight and even lead to diabetes. Higher cocoa content has been associated with greater heart benefits.
Another source, About.com and its Longevity page, features an analysis of chocolate, “ Why is Dark Chocolate Healthy? ” (written by Mark Stibich in 2005 and updated in 2009), analyzing what it is about chocolate that would make it so good for us. As he puts it, “Chocolate is made from plants, which means it contains many of the health benefits of dark vegetables.”
He notes that the flavonoids in dark chocolate act as antioxidants, which are known to protect the body from the aging process caused by free radicals, which cause damage that leads to (among other things) heart disease. Since dark chocolate contains almost eight times the flavonoids found in strawberries, its effect is completely understandable. Flavonoids lower both blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, and thus have a most beneficial effect on preventing or minimizing the risk of heart disease.
In addition, along with the pleasant taste (sweet, but not cloyingly so, and with just a tinge of bitterness underneath for balance), dark chocolate has also been found to stimulate the production of endorphins, part of the body’s natural “feelgood” mechanism. It also contains serotonin (a natural anti-depressant, which Big Pharma is working overtime to duplicate) and several stimulants, including theobromine and caffeine.
Meanwhile, Stibich notes, even the charge that chocolate is largely fat and sugar falls before more careful analysis. “Here is some more good news,” he proclaims, “The fats in chocolate are 1/3 oleic acid, 1/3 stearic acid and 1/3 palmitic acid.” Oleic acid is an unsaturated fat found in olive oil; stearic acid is saturated fat, but has been shown to have neutral effects on cholesterol; only palmitic acid has been shown to raise cholesterol and increase heart disease risk.
Yet another source, the world-famous Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, Minn., has its own take on the chocolate controversy. In a question/answer session on the clinic’s own Web site, Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D., responds to the question, Can chocolate be healthy for me? with the usual caveats. She notes the studies showing reduction of risk factors for heart disease, as well as the effect of flavanols in cocoa beans; however, she also declares those studies “premature” and based on short-term, uncontrolled conditions, and in need of longer research for true confirmation of their results.
As for the advice she gives, it’s similar to other cautions: add chocolate in moderation, eat dark chocolate with high cocoa-content (65 percent or higher); and limit your consumption (three ounces, or 85 grams, per day). Meanwhile, plan to drop calories elsewhere, and get some extra exercise to burn it off.