If it replaced your daily cholesterol and blood-pressure medications, you’d pop a chocolate pill, right? The idea might seem farfetched, but for an upcoming study by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and Mars Inc., researchers will try to prove such tablets have a positive impact on heart health.
Before you get too excited, these pills won’t exactly be candy-coated. Instead, they’re filled with concentrated flavanoids, heart-healthy compounds found in the cocoa bean. Super-high in antioxidant activity, previous studies indicate flavanoids may play a role in improving blood pressure, cholesterol, insulin levels, artery health, and heart health factors. By putting these flavanoids in pill form, scientists will be able to study the effects of the compounds without the associated fat and sugar of chocolate that can lead to weight gain—a risk factor of cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions.
Still, when indulging your sweet tooth, you could do worse than a brick of flavanoid-rich dark chocolate. Need more convincing? Here are five good reasons to eat chocolate:
1. Portion (and weight) control When you buy individual bricks of dark chocolate, and eat just one for dessert after a meal, you’re less likely to overdo it than if you were scooping out ice cream or slicing into a cake. “A once-ounce portion of dark chocolate will cost you roughly 150 calories—much better than most cookies and cakes, and lower in fat, too,” says Jackie London, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian in New York City. “And as long as you stick to that one portion, individuals who eat chocolate with increased frequency are shown to have lower BMIs.”
2. Antioxidants Antioxidants abound in cocoa, and they have a laundry list of associated health benefits. Think: anti-inflammatory effects, better immunity, cancer-fighting properties, a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, as well as better skin integrity and wound healing. What’s not to love?
3. Stress reduction You are not imagining it: your worries do melt away when you eat chocolate. At least, the associated symptoms do. “Some studies have demonstrated that an intake of daily dark chocolate can impact the physical effects of stress on the body,” says London. These range from reducing the urinary excretion of stress hormones to positively affecting the gut.
4. Caffeine It might not be a bad idea to have your daily choco-fix after lunch, possibly as an afternoon pick-me-up at work. “Dark chocolate can contain caffeine, which serves as a central nervous system stimulator, resulting in improved alertness and cognition,” says London.
5. Happiness Whether you’re having a rough day at the office or dealing with a breakup, chocolate really can help. “Dark chocolate, in particular 85% cacao, contains tryptophan, which is a precursor of serotonin—a neurotransmitter that serves as a mood-booster,” says London.
Go ahead: have a serving! Just remember to be choosy about chocolate. London explains the more processed the chocolate, the fewer health benefits, and the worse it is for you. So…
Look for a high percentage of cacao The fewer ingredients in the chocolate, the better. “The problem with a lot of commercial chocolate is food additives and ingredients that you may have otherwise not considered, such as soy lecithin,” London says. “The general rule of thumb is that the more heavily processed any food is, the greater the depletion of health benefits. Therefore, what you’re looking for are ones that are higher in cacao percentage, while still retaining a sweet and satisfying flavor that you will enjoy.” To nab benefits and get great taste, aim for the “sweet spot,” which is 70% (or higher) cacao.
Lose the add-ons There’s a reason Snickers and Twix bars, while chocolatey, are not healthy. “Add-ons rack up the caloric content and decrease the cacao content, thus decreasing the health benefits of the chocolate,” London says. “Avoid additional toffee, caramel, nuts and dried fruits to keep the caloric content at bay.”
Seek organic or fair-trade Seek out organic, fair-trade, and locally-sourced dark chocolate to get maximum health benefits. “These tend to be the ones with the fewest additives, and are essentially close to natural form as possible,” London says.
What do you think? Will this sweet treat land in your shopping cart this week?
Jenna Birch is a health and lifestyle writer. She has written for many web and print publications, including Marie Claire, Runner’s World, mom.me and WomansDay.com. As a nutrition and fitness junkie, she’s a lifelong athlete, major college sports fan and developing yogi — but still can’t resist the allure of an occasional chocolate lava cake. (Everything in moderation, right?) For more, visit her at jennabirch.com or follow her on Twitter.