Can Something as Good as Chocolate Really Be Good for Your Heart?

Two young women eating chocolate

It sounds almost too wonderful to be true. Recent studies have found that eating chocolate, in moderation of course, is actually good for your health. It may even help protect you from heart attack and stroke.1 It’s a chocolate lover’s dream come true! Just don’t rush out and start eating chocolate candy bars packed with caramel and marshmallows and calling them health food. There’s more you need to know.

The science behind it

Along with dark chocolate, other foods high in healthful flavonoids are apples, red wine, tea, onions, and cranberries.2

Chocolate is made from cocoa, and the cocoa bean is very rich in plant nutrients called flavonoids. Flavonoids help protect plants from environmental toxins. They also help repair damage. When we eat foods that are rich in flavonoids, it appears that we also benefit from these same protective, antioxidant properties.

Scientists believe that antioxidants help the body’s cells resist damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are a byproduct of normal bodily processes such as breathing, and of environmental contaminants like cigarette smoke. When your body doesn’t have enough antioxidants to combat the oxidation that occurs, it can be damaged by the free radicals. For example, an increase in oxidation can cause LDL, or bad, cholesterol to form plaque on artery walls.

The main types of flavonoid found in cocoa are flavanols. In addition to their antioxidant qualities, research shows they have other potential benefits for heart health, such as lowering blood pressure, improving blood flow to the brain and heart, and making blood platelets less likely to cause clots.2

Along with dark chocolate, other foods high in healthful flavonoids are apples, red wine, tea, onions, and cranberries.2

Not just any chocolate will do

In addition to enjoying a square of dark chocolate, another way to get healthy flavanols from cocoa into your diet is to add plain cocoa to your low-fat milk or oatmeal.3

Not all forms of chocolate contain high levels of healthful flavanols. Dark chocolate is the winner over milk chocolate. But you still have to choose the right kind of dark chocolate.

If you look at the ingredient list on many dark chocolate bars, you’ll find sugar listed as the first ingredient. That means it's the most abundant ingredient in the bar. So you need to look for dark chocolate that has cocoa solids listed first. That's where you’ll find the heart-healthy flavanols. Try to find dark chocolate that is made up of at least 70 percent cocoa solids. This type of chocolate may have a slightly bitter taste, but it's easy to train your taste buds to enjoy the less sweet flavor.1

It's also important to avoid chocolate with extra ingredients that can add a lot of extra fat and calories that aren’t beneficial to your health.

In addition to enjoying a square of dark chocolate, another way to get healthy flavanols from cocoa into your diet is to add plain cocoa to your low-fat milk or oatmeal.3

Good for your heart – and more!

Several studies have shown that dark chocolate may go beyond lowering blood pressure and reducing blood clots. It may actually help protect against heart attacks and strokes.

One German study published in 2010 tracked 20,000 people over eight years. It found that those who ate one square of chocolate a day had 39 percent less chance of stroke and heart attack. An Australian study from 2012 found that eating dark chocolate daily could help prevent major cardiovascular events for people with risk factors for heart disease. Dark chocolate may also protect against diabetes by helping the body use insulin more efficiently. In addition, it contains healthy unsaturated fats that are beneficial for your heart and cholesterol levels.1

More research is needed to confirm the results of these early studies, but initial findings look promising.3

How much?

The amount of chocolate you need to eat to gain the heart benefits has not been established. But it is good to know you don’t have to feel guilty about enjoying a small piece of dark chocolate once in a while. So feel free to have an ounce or so of chocolate a few times a week.2 Enjoy!

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