9 Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate

Health + Wellness
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Who doesn’t like chocolate? The good news is that some of it is good for you. While most of society has heard that dark chocolate has health benefits, most don’t know what they are or how they work on your body.

Truth is, dark chocolate is one of the best sources of antioxidants out there. Made from cacao tree seeds, this sweet treat lowers risk of heart disease and is chock full of nutrients, specifically flavanols.

1. Source of Antioxidants

Dark chocolate has organic compounds that are active when in the body and act as antioxidants — specifically flavanols, polyphenols, and catechins. Cocoa has one of the highest levels of oxygen radical absorbance capacity, which measures antioxidant activity.

2. Helps Healthy Blood Flow and Pressure

The flavanols we talked about before can help healthy blood flow by stimulating the lining of the arteries and producing nitric oxide which sends signals to make the arteries relax. Those relaxed arteries lower blood flow resistance which decreases blood pressure naturally. These effects, however, are mild at best, so if you suffer from high blood pressure, dark chocolate alone won’t fix it. More research in this area is needed.

3. May Reduce Risk of Heart Disease

When cholesterol oxidizes, it can lodge in the arteries and eventually cause heart disease. The compounds in dark chocolate protect the body from this oxidation. One study found cocoa reduced risk of death from heart disease by 50 percent over 15 years.

A separate study showed eating dark chocolate twice per week lowered calcified plaque in the arteries by 32 percent. Eating it more than five times a week lowered heart disease risk by 57 percent. Mixing it with almonds can help even more in terms of improving those bad cholesterol levels.

4. Could Help Prevent Cardiovascular Disease, Stroke and Diabetes

And it’s not just heart disease. A study has shown dark chocolate could drastically reduce risk of stroke. Following more than 20,000 people for more than 10 years, the study found a strong correlation between the two.

Chocolate has been found to increase insulin resistance, which can determine the development of diabetes. It also hypes up endothelial function which helps maintain artery health, improving cardiovascular health.

In fact, chocolate has such a positive effect on human bodies that some experts waver on whether to call it a food or a drug.

5. Decreases Bad Cholesterol Levels

Mentioned in relation to other health benefits, lowering that bad cholesterol level is a health improvement all on its own. Bad cholesterol reacts to free radicals and becomes capable of damaging natural tissues like artery linings. When cocoa’s antioxidants get into the bloodstream, they protect the body’s lipoproteins against oxidation.

6. Could Help Brain Function

It’s not just your body that benefits from dark chocolate, it’s also your brain. A study showed that eating dark chocolate for five days improved blood flow to the brain. Over time, cocoa can improve cognitive function and even improve verbal fluency in older adults with minor impairments. The short-term effects of cocoa on brain function can be attributed to its stimulants, like caffeine and theobromine.

7. May Help Prevent Depression

And it’s not just the physical brain chocolate can help. The theobromine in dark chocolate can cause that energy spike and subsequent crash, but the anandamide in chocolate acts as a mood and energy boost in the long-term for a slow burning calming enhancer.

Another chemical that helps mood is phenethylamine, which is also found in dark chocolate. The body metabolizes this into serotonin and that regulates mood. If you are not making enough, supplementing through phenethylamine in chocolate can bring you back to your base needs. A survey of more than 13,000 adults compared their self-reported chocolate eating with depressive symptoms and found that those who consumed dark chocolate in the past 24 hours were 70 percent less likely to feel depression.

8. Full of Nutrients

On top of all these benefits, chocolate isn’t filled with the empty calories you find in most sweets. It has a good level of soluble fiber to help digestion, two-thirds your daily needs of iron, more than half of your magnesium intake, and will fulfill nearly all your needs for manganese and copper. It’s also full of zinc, phosphorus, selenium, and potassium. And while chocolate contains a fair amount of fat, its fats are mostly healthy, consisting of oleic acid.

9. May Be a Natural Sunscreen

Dark chocolate can even help your skin via its bioactive compounds. Its flavanols protect against sun damage and it improves blood flow, increasing skin density and hydration. A study showed people consuming dark chocolate over a period of three months had a higher level of protection against UVB rays. Still, don’t shirk on the sunscreen when going out. Chocolate is no substitute for a normal skin care routine.

Of course, like all good things, moderation is key. Having a square or two of dark chocolate a day has a lot of benefits, but going overboard will cost you in sugar and calories. Keep in mind that not all chocolate is nutritious. You need to look for dark chocolate with 70 percent or higher cocoa content. These types will have some sugar but not a lot and they contain a lot more nutrients than your typical processed milk chocolately goodie. Enjoy your dessert!

Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer and a professor at the University of Florida, with degrees in communications and ecology.

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