Mmmm… delicious, creamy dark chocolate. And there are tons of dark chocolate benefits for your health, as well as your taste buds.
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And here they are...
Dark chocolate gives you many benefits because of the natural vitamins and anti-oxidants found in the cacao bean. Natural plant antioxidants called flavonoids occur in cacao, especially the flavonoid epicatechin, though catechin and procyanadins also occur.
If that's a bit confusing, just know that cacao (and by extension, dark chocolate) has lots of good stuff in it. In addition to just tasting great ;-) Here's a list of the most major benefits of dark chocolate:
In fact, dark chocolate has about twice the amount of anti-oxidants as a similarly sized milk chocolate bar or a glass of wine, about 3 times more than a cup of green tea, and vastly more than raisins, strawberries, onions, oranges, plums, raspberries - or basically anything else!
An antioxidant is any molecule that can stop the oxidation of other molecules. Oxidation means to react with oxygen - iron oxidizes and turns to rust, wood oxidizes and burns, and when your cells oxidize they get damaged and/or die. This is a simplified explanation, but basically the antioxidants help your cells live longer and can potentially even protect you from some diseases.
So your dark chocolate health benefits could include living longer. Yay!
The benefits of eating dark chocolate include a reduced risk of LDL cholesterol oxidation. The fact that cacao is jam-packed with antioxidants helps this to happen.
On the most basic level, this protects your blood vessels. But it also gives you the rest of the benefits of lowering your LDL cholesterol, too.
Studies have shown that consuming dark chocolate regularly can improve the functioning of your endothelium (the inner layer of your blood vessels). And it can improve the elasticity of your aorta, one of your most important arteries.
So, your blood vessels are healthier and can change size easier. Which means that lowering your blood pressure is another one of the dark chocolate benefits.
The flavonoids in dark chocolate keep cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels. This exerts a small, but measurable, benefit for decreased risk of clotting in your blood vessels.
The flavonoids found in dark chocolate increase the presence of nitric oxide (NO) in your bloodstream. NO is a powerful anti-inflammatory, in addition to helping relax your blood vessels.
For reasons we still don't know, dark chocolate benefits even helped people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome in a double blind trial. Which is really awesome, if a bit bewildering.
It could be the taste, it could be something antioxidant-y or healthy, but whatever - it helped! Cool!
Chocolate tastes great. That is one of the most important dark chocolate benefits for health :-)
I feel that taking pleasure in what you eat is vitally important. Without that, there's no reason to be healthy and live longer!
Sorry, it has to be dark chocolate for all the health benefits to kick in. Except for the tasting good one ;-)
First off, dark chocolate has more flavonoids than milk chocolate. Milk also appears to interfere with your bodies' absorption of flavanols - so milk chocolate is out.
And white chocolate isn't actually chocolate. While it is derived from the cocoa bean, it doesn't contain any cocoa solids. So, no health benefits for white chocolate either :-(
Stick with dark chocolate!
Here's a short run-down on the most cited studies about the dark chocolate benefits that I could find. I think it's pretty cool, but if talking about scientific studies bores you to death, feel free to skip this bit.
Researches at the University of Cologne, Germany, were able to show that dark chocolate benefits include lowering blood pressure. The study, entitled, "Dark Chocolate Not White Chocolate Lowers Blood Pressure", came out in the August 23, 2003 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.
For this study, they had 11 people (6 men and 7 women) get their blood pressure measured, then eat a single 100 gram bar of chocolate (480 calories) every day for 2 weeks, and then measured their blood pressure again. Half the participants got dark chocolate, and half got white chocolate. And all of them had high blood pressure, averaging 153/84.
After the 2 weeks of eating a chocolate bar a day, there was a small drop in their systolic and diastolic blood pressure. 5 and 2 points on average, respectively.
While it's cool that dark chocolate benefits caused their blood pressure to lower, it's a pretty small change in blood pressure. And the study was only carried out for 2 weeks with 11 people, an absurdly short study with an absurdly low sample size to draw conclusions about people in the general population eating chocolate for their entire lives. Still, a good start!
Mary Engler, at University of California, San Francisco, divided 21 healthy adults into 2 groups. Each group ate a dove dark chocolate bar every day for 2 weeks.
But, there's a catch: one of the groups had bars that contained the beneficial flavonoid epicatechin, which occurs normally in dark chocolate, while the other group had bars with no flavonoids. And, incidentally, this 2 week test was the longest clinical trial to date of chocolate consumption (as of 2007) - tying with the study above. The result?
The people in the group with the flavonoid-filled bars were found to have slightly lower blood pressure and improved aortic elasticity (healthier blood vessels) after 2 weeks. But the group that was eating the flavonoid-free bars did not have those benefits.
So, the moral of this study is to make sure you go dark when you eat your chocolate - since the more cocoa the bar has, the more beneficial flavonoids it has. Get the darkest, most cocoa-y stuff you can find if you want the dark chocolate benefits!
But again - tiny study, tiny sample size, and only for 2 weeks. :-(
Back in 2007 Science Daily reported on a study of the native Kuna people in Panama. They drink upwards of 40 cups of cocoa a week, while their rates of Western diseases (in the study stroke, heart failure, cancer, and diabetes were explicitly mentioned) affect less than 10% of their population.
While this is more really cool info about dark chocolate benefits, this study suffers from the fact that it's an observational correlation based on an entire population. We don't really know whether it was the dark chocolate benefits that were preventing Western diseases.
Maybe the Kuna do something else that is responsible for their low rate of heart attack and cancer? Maybe it's their hunter-gatherer diet, or that their genes happen to do a better job of protecting them from Western diseases? Or that they do a lot of dancing or other physical activity?
I like these studies that show the benefits of dark chocolate. In my opinion, they are a good first step toward understanding the health implications of eating chocolate.
But take the fantastic claims of dark chocolate radically improving your health with a grain (or two) of salt. Like the studies above, most studies use absurdly low sample sizes and were conducted for only a few weeks.
So, we'll need to study more chocolate eating in the future. A horrifying proposition, right? ;-)
Chocolate has health benefits, so do eat it. And don't feel guilty.
If you don't take pleasure in what you eat, you will switch to something you do take pleasure in. So to stick to a healthy diet for a long time, maybe even a few years (or the rest of your life), it's important to have tradeoffs. Indulge a little here and there, and have fun - just don't go overboard.
Oh, and be sure to sign up for the e-zine Starting Strong to get monthly strength training, exercise, and diet tips e-mailed to you - and access to the free e-book Train Smart, Eat Smart: Exercise Nutrition Hacks!
The Best Dark Chocolate Benefits: More Reasons to Indulge
1. Beckett, Stephen T. 2008. The Science of Chocolate. Cambridge: RSC Publishing. Pp. 204.
2. Ibid. Pp. 206.
3. Aziz, Michael. 2010. The Perfect 10 Diet: 10 Key Hormones That Hold The Secret to Losing Weight & Feeling Great - Fast! Naperville, Ill: Sourcebooks. Pp. 125.
4. Beckett. Pp. 205.
5. Rapitis, George. 2007. Lighter Side of Dark Chocolate: Take it to Heart. [S.l.]: Authorhouse. Pp. 17.
6. Beckett. Pp. 205.
8. Rapitis. Pp. 17.
9. Beckett. Pp. 206.
10. Ibid. Pp. 205.
11. Rapitis. Pp. 16
12. Ibid. Pp. 17.
14. Ibid. Pp. 18.
17. Society of Chemical Industry. "Cocoa 'Vitamin' Health Benefits Could Outshine Penicillin." ScienceDaily, 12 Mar. 2007. Web. 29 Apr. 2011. < http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/03/070311202024.htm >.
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