Chocolate is good for you? Well, yes. It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But I’m happy to tell you that it really is true. Chocolate benefits your brain, your skin, your cardiovascular system, and even your eyes. Not all types of chocolate have a beneficial impact on health, however. Milk chocolate and white chocolate don’t do much for you. It’s dark chocolate, containing 70% or more cocoa that works all the healthy magic.
What makes dark chocolate so good for us?
Let’s start with the science. Plant foods are loaded with substances that promote human health. These plant components are known as phytonutrients or phytochemicals (phyto = plant). In dark chocolate, the health-enhancing phytonutrients are the flavanols in the cocoa. More than 40 randomized, controlled clinical trials have demonstrated the positive impact of cocoa flavanols on human health. Dark chocolate contains 2-3 times more flavanols than milk chocolate. Cocoa powder and the unsweetened chocolate found in the baking aisle at the grocery store contain the most flavanols. The product with the least flavanols is chocolate syrup.
Here are some of the health benefits you gain by eating flavanol-rich dark chocolate:
In one study, people were given the same tests after eating a white chocolate bar and after eating a dark chocolate bar. After consuming dark chocolate with 720 mg of cocoa flavanols, they were better able to detect motion and read low contrast letters. It is thought that their enhanced visual performance after eating the dark chocolate was due to cocoa flavanols’ ability to increase blood flow to the retina and brain. Flavanol-rich chocolate benefits vision in other ways, too. Its copper protects the eyes from damage, and its vitamin A helps protect against macular degeneration.
Cocoa flavanols have a similar positive effect on the rest of the circulatory system. Cocoa flavanols help relax blood vessels and help maintain the elasticity of the arteries. The result can be a measurable decrease in arterial blood pressure and improved blood flow to the heart. What’s more, cocoa flavanols help prevent blood clots and help reduce inflammation in cardiovascular tissues. Researchers think it may only take about a fifth of a dark chocolate bar to produce these circulatory system benefits.
Both skin and hair benefit from the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants found in chocolate, which include vitamins A, B1, C, D, and E, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. When the cocoa flavanol level is high, it helps skin protect itself from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. In addition, cocoa flavanols’ ability to increase blood flow to the scalp helps to promote healthier, stronger hair.
Researchers at the University of Nottingham discovered that flavanols dilate the blood vessels in the brain. This increases blood flow, bringing more oxygen to the brain. The result is a short-term boost in mental alertness that can last two or three hours. While experts have not yet determined the optimal amount of flavanols we should consume each day, drinking just two cups of cocoa every day for a month has been associated with significant improvements in both cognitive function and blood flow in the brain.
Moderation is Key
If you are a chocolate lover, all of these health benefits make it very easy to rationalize a daily dark chocolate binge. However, that’s not a good idea. Dark chocolate is rich in calories (150-170 calories per ounce) due to its saturated fat and sugar content. Regularly eating lots of chocolate can result in weight gain that more or less wipes out the health benefits you’re going for. So here’s a tip for all of us—not just those who are overweight or diabetic: consume chocolate in moderation. While experts do recommend eating chocolate, no one should eat more than one or two squares of flavanol-rich dark chocolate per day. So be sure to truly savor that square or two of daily chocolate. And you can enjoy those moments of daily chocolatey indulgence totally guilt free—because chocolate is really good for you!