3 Healthy Reasons to Eat Dark Chocolate

Posted by Kayla Phillips on

If you dream of eating chocolate every day, now you have an excuse.

Scientific studies have shown that dark chocolate — sorry, milk and white chocolate don’t count — is rich in antioxidants and packed with nutrients, making this bittersweet treat a superfood favorite.

Dark chocolate contains phytonutrients called flavonoids, which are plant chemicals that act as antioxidants and may play a role in cancer prevention, heart health, and weight loss, noted an article published in December 2016 in the Journal of Nutritional Science. The cacao plant that chocolate is derived from also contains a compound called theobromine, which Toby Amidor, RD, a cookbook author and nutrition expert for the Food Network, says can help reduce inflammation and potentially lower blood pressure.

“Cacao is packed with numerous antioxidants — actually more than green tea or red wine,” she says. “The darker you go, the more antioxidants you’ll get, but there needs to be a balance between eating palatable dark chocolate and getting the health benefits.”

Your best bet is choosing a bar with 70 percent cacao or higher, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; bars with lower percentages of cacao have more added sugar and unhealthy fats. Even though quality dark chocolate is a better choice than milk chocolate, it is still chocolate, meaning it’s high in calories and saturated fat. To avoid weight gain, Amidor recommends eating no more than 1 ounce of dark chocolate per day.

1. Dark Chocolate May Help Prevent Heart Disease and Lower the Risk of Stroke

One of the biggest benefits that researchers tout is the role dark chocolate may play in improving heart health. A meta-analysis of eight studies on the link between chocolate consumption and cardiovascular disease, published in July 2015 in the journal Heart, found that people who ate more chocolate per day had a lower risk of both heart disease and stroke.

A number of observational studies have also shown indulging in dark chocolate on a regular basis may reduce the risk of heart disease. For example, one earlier study published in the journal Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate dark chocolate more than five times a week reduced their risk of heart disease by 57 percent.

Researchers hypothesize it’s the flavonoids in dark chocolate that maintain heart health, per a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. These chemicals help produce nitric oxide, which causes blood vessels to relax and blood pressure to lower, noted a review published in March 2017 in the American Journal of Physiology: Cell Physiology.

Because many of these studies are observational, the results could be skewed by people under reporting their chocolate intake. The studies are also limited in that they can’t directly establish cause and effect. More study is needed to determine the exact amount and types of flavonoid-rich chocolate that would help lessen stroke risk.

2. May Improve Cognition, Prevent Memory Loss, and Boost Your Mood

Studies show consuming high concentrations of dark chocolate may benefit your brain. Joy DuBost, PhD, RD, a nutrition spokesperson and owner of Dubost Food & Nutrition Solutions, says research has shown chocolate stimulates neural activity in areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward, which in turn decreases stress and improves your mood. Out of eight studies on chocolate and mood, five showed improvements in mood, and three showed “clear evidence of cognitive enhancement,” according to a systematic review published in the journal Nutrition Reviews. Further research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting found that eating 48 grams (g) of organic chocolate with 70 percent cacao increased neuroplasticity in the brain, which could have positive effects on memory, cognition, and mood.

Improvements in brain health may be due to the high levels of flavonoids in dark chocolate, which research, like a study published in April 2018 in The FASEB Journal, has found to have accumulated in regions of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

While some research, including a study published in May 2017 in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition, has indicated there may be a link between dark chocolate and the brain, studies with larger sample sizes need to be conducted, and further research is needed to investigate the mechanisms involved. And before you run out and stock up on chocolate bars, keep in mind most studies experimented with much higher quantities of chocolate than the recommended daily dose (1.5 ounces maximum).

3. Dark Chocolate Could Improve Blood Sugar Levels, and Reduce the Risk of Developing Diabetes

Eating chocolate every day doesn’t sound like the best way to prevent diabetes, but studies have shown healthy amounts of dark chocolate rich in cacao could actually improve how the body metabolizes glucose. Insulin resistance causes high blood glucose (sugar) and is the hallmark of type 2 diabetes, per an article published in March 2019 by StatPearls.

In a study published in October 2017 the Journal of Community and Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives, the flavonoids in dark chocolate were found to reduce oxidative stress, which scientists think is the primary cause of insulin resistance. By improving your body’s sensitivity to insulin, resistance is reduced, and in turn the risk of diseases like diabetes decreases.

Another study, this one published in January 2017 in the journal Appetite, showed that participants who rarely consumed chocolate had almost twice the risk of developing diabetes five years down the road, compared with participants who indulged in dark chocolate at least once per week.

While researchers agree dark chocolate possesses many health benefits, further study is needed to determine if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between chocolate consumption and diabetes risk. 

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