The average American eats 21 pounds of chocolate each year. Chocolate has become a 50 billion industry. Our love of chocolate isn't a modern-day thing. It's something that goes back centuries.The history of chocolate
Chocolate has been valued for hundreds of years for its healing and nutritional powers, such as strengthening your heart. However, years ago, only the wealthy could afford this treat. Even Florence Nightingale considered chocolate to be a basic ingredient of healthcare.Our love of chocolate today
Today, chocolate has become a sign of love and affection. But chocolate isn't just for the wealthy or special occasions anymore. Millions of pounds of chocolate are sold each year as gifts, snacks, and a cold-weather drink. Research has shown that some of the beliefs about chocolate's health benefits from years ago are actually true. But before you rush to the store, you should know that not all chocolate is the same.Dark chocolate is best
Dark chocolate is the best when it comes to health benefits. It's loaded with flavonoids. Flavonoids are a special type of antioxidant. They protect your body and help prevent plaque buildup in blood vessels.
Phenols are a specific flavonoid found in red wine and dark chocolate. Dark chocolate contains higher levels of phenols than red wine. Phenols help protect against heart disease by preventing and slowing plaque buildup in the arteries.Heart health benefits
A number of research studies have shown that if you eat dark chocolate regularly, it has heart-healthy benefits. Some of these studies found that it can lower your blood pressure and reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Dark chocolate can also help with high blood pressure and hypertension. When people with mild high blood pressure ate 3.5 oz of dark chocolate daily, they decreased their pressure quite a bit. Smaller amounts of chocolate also may have similar benefits. One study found that just 1.5 oz eaten daily for two weeks improved blood flow in the heart.
Other research has shown dark chocolate can put you in a better mood. It works by increasing your serotonin levels - a chemical in your brain that helps your moods - and makes you feel good. However, more research is needed to learn just how much dark chocolate you should eat for health benefits.Does it have to be dark?
White chocolate — not truly chocolate — milk chocolate, and cocoa mixes don't seem to have the same benefits as dark chocolate. To get the best flavanoids, look for chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa. European brands of dark chocolate are even richer in flavanoids than brands made in the United States.
If you drink milk with chocolate, you could be keeping the antioxidants from getting into your system. Another thing to consider is calories. There are 480 calories in 3.5 oz of dark chocolate and 200 calories in 1.5 oz. If you gain weight eating chocolate, you're probably canceling out the benefits. Use chocolate instead of desserts or sweets you might otherwise have.
The bottom line: it's OK to enjoy some chocolate. But for the health benefits, make it dark and don't eat a lot!
Nutritionist, educator, counselor and food lover for more than 20 years (OK, a food lover for a bit longer), Renée is a registered dietitian and nutrition director for Sensei. When not working, she can be found hanging with her human and furry friends or trying to perfect the latest healthy recipe. She believes that moderation and prevention are the keys to health and that good nutrition doesn’t have to be as complicated as it seems.