You Wanted to Know: Chocolate

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For chocolate lovers, few holidays rank as high as Valentine’s Day. Fortunately for fanatics, chocolate is not only a delicious treat – it can also be a healthy one. But if you duck into the candy aisle without knowing exactly what to look for, you might find that you’re doing yourself (or your loved ones) a disservice. One of our viewers, Umita, asked us whether chocolate really can be good for you:

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Studies have shown that cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, has the potential to help our hearts by lowering blood pressure and LDL, or bad cholesterol. High blood pressure and high cholesterol are major contributors to coronary heart disease, the leading killer of both men and women.

These effects are believed to come from cocoa’s high concentration of flavanols, an antioxidant compound that can help cells resist damage from free radicals, improve blood flow, reduce the likelihood of blood clots and help relax blood vessels. Cocoa also contains oleic acid, a monounsaturated fat, which may help lower LDL levels. And if that’s not enough to make you want to nibble on some chocolate, consider that it may help improve your mood by boosting feel-good serotonin and endorphin levels.

To get enough flavanols to really make a difference, though, milk or white chocolate won’t do it – you gotta go dark. Usually, dark chocolate has a much higher concentration of flavanols than milk chocolate, though highly-processed dark chocolate (which is found in many commercially available dark chocolates) may not contain much either. To maximize your chances of picking healthy dark chocolate, look for the following:

  • Darkly colored chocolate with 70% or more of cocoa and little or no added sugars
  • Chocolate made from cocoa butter instead of fats like palm and coconut oils
  • Chocolate made without “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oils (check the label), which are bad for your cholesterol

Also, if you’re eating baked goods with chocolate in them or chocolate treats that include other ingredients like caramel, sweet fillings or marshmallows, you’re probably doing more harm than good. Stick to the plain stuff. Similarly, just adding an extra dose of chocolate on top of your usual diet will add calories to your day and potentially inches to your waistline. Instead, try to replace other desserts or treats you might reach for with a little dark chocolate. Like most treats, you have to enjoy chocolate in moderation to get the benefits without the downsides. Limit yourself to about an ounce of dark chocolate a day.

And finally, since everyone’s body is different, if you find that chocolate seems to be sending your cholesterol or triglycerides in the wrong direction, ditch the chocolate habit. Chocolate isn’t the only source of flavanols – you can try some cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions or tea to get some similar benefits without as many extra calories.

You can find more tips on how to give your heart and your love life a boost this Valentine’s Day here.