Anyone who has ever talked to me for more than about 5 minutes surely knows of my love for dark chocolate. In my humble opinion, dark chocolate is simply the greatest flavor known to mankind, bar none.
As I’m writing this, I’m helping myself to a square of Lindt 85% cocoa dark chocolate that my friend Jenny bought for me. The whole bar will most certainly be gone by tonight. (Edit: 2 hours later, chocolate finished 🙂 )
A lot of people mention the high saturated fat content of chocolate as well as the high calorie content, and dismiss it as unhealthy. On the other hand, most people have heard somewhere that dark chocolate can be healthy, but they don’t know why.
But don’t worry…you are about to learn more than you could ever want to know about the health benefits of dark chocolate.
Contents Of Chocolate
There are over 300 compounds in chocolate.
It is important to keep this in mind. Cocoa is a very complex food, and certainly has many effects that we currently know very little or nothing about.
Only a few of the compounds have been studied and are known to have some type of distinct physiological effects. Some of the important ones are the flavonoids, caffeine (interested in quitting?), theobromine, phenylethylamine (PEA), anandamide, tryptophan, and serotonin.
There are many documented effects of these compounds, and we will get into some of them here.
The most important compounds (that we know of) responsible for many of the health benefits of chocolate are flavonoids, and particularly epicatechin. These are plant-based antioxidant compounds that can be found in a few other healthy foods, such as blueberries, wine, and green tea.
Chocolate also includes several types of fats, including roughly equal proportions of oleic acid, stearic acid, and palmitic acid. Oleic acid is a healthy mono-unsaturated fat, and both stearic and palmitic acids are saturated fats.
“Oh no! Saturated fat is bad for you! If two thirds of the fat in chocolate is saturated, it must be horrible for you!”
Not so fast.
Stearic acid has actually been shown to reduce levels of LDL cholesterol! While positive effects of palmitic acid have not been documented, you can certainly rest easier knowing that chocolate is not overloaded with potentially unhealthy saturated fats.
Now, onto the benefits…
Top 12 Reasons Dark Chocolate Is Good For You
Want to know what the most recent research has shown about how dark chocolate can be good for you? We’ve gotcha covered.
1. Lowers Blood Pressure And Protects Your Heart Health.
Probably the most studied effect of dark chocolate is that of lowering blood pressure. This has serious implications for your heart.
When chocolate was compared to flavanol-free products, there was a significant reduction of 3-4 mm Hg in blood pressure.
In a meta-analysis of 15 studies on chocolate and blood pressure, the flavonols in chocolate reduced blood pressure in hypertensive individuals. The magnitude of blood pressure drop is large enough that it could lower the risk of a cardiovascular event by 20% over five years. Impressive!
Even more importantly, chocolate has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 37% and lower the risk of stroke by 29%! While this evidence is preliminary and causality has not been proven, these numbers are big enough that there will surely be more research done on this in the near future.
2. Improves Cholesterol Profile.
Especially with so much saturated fat, you would expect dark chocolate to raise your cholesterol.
In a 12 week study of chocolate on cholesterol, there was a noted increase in HDL cholesterol and decrease in LDL cholesterol. In other words, chocolate significantly improved the cholesterol profile of those who consumed it.
A meta-analysis showed that short term chocolate consumption was associated with a significant decrease in LDL and total cholesterol, but didn’t affect HDL.
Of course, more research is necessary to fully describe the cholesterol improving effects of chocolate, but there is mounting evidence that chocolate is, in fact, beneficial with regards to your cholesterol profile.
3. Reduce Inflammation Associated With Arthritis.
Chocolate reduced several markers of inflammation and arthritis progression in rats. In that experiment, chocolate helped to create an anti-inflammatory environment that can be beneficial against arthritis.
While only an animal study, these findings lend support for more research on the use of chocolate as an accompaniment to anti-inflammatory drugs in arthritis patients.
In humans, cocoa consumption has been linked to a decrease in inflammatory markers. In particular, cocoa reduced the amount of intercellular adhesion molecule 1, and thus might help prevent artherosclerosis.
More heart healthy benefits!
4. Improves Mood.
People love chocolate.
It contains compounds such as phenylethylamine, anandamides, tryptophan, and serotonin, which help improve mood.
But you wouldn’t get enough of these compounds to have any real effect unless you consumed absurdly high amounts of chocolate.
So why does chocolate improve mood?
My theory is that chocolate is delicious. What do you think?
Here’s something cool: letting chocolate melt on your tongue gives you a stronger “buzz” than a passionate kiss. The chocolate doubled subjects’ heart rates, and as it melted, all parts of the brain lit up. This effect lasted up to four times longer with the melted chocolate group than with the kissing group. Wild!
5. Has A Mildly Stimulating Effect.
Dark chocolate contains significant amounts of caffeine and theobromine, both of which are central nervous system stimulants.
A full bar (3.5 oz) of dark chocolate contains approximately 70 mg of caffeine.
You should not eat this much at once, but even a square or two can provide a nice little boost.
6. Protects Against Colon Cancer.
The flavanoids in chocolate may help prevent colon cancer by fighting against oxidative stress and stimulating cancer cell death.
The cocoa-treated rats in that study had stronger antioxidant defenses, leading to a decrease in markers of oxidative damage.
7. Boost Exercise Endurance.
This is great news to all you fitness enthusiasts out there.
Epicatechin, found in cocoa, improved exercise endurance in mice fed a diet with tiny amounts of the compound. In fact, the treated mice performed 50% better on a treadmill exercise and 30% better on a muscle fatigue resistance test.
This benefit was probably due to improvements in skeletal and cardiac muscles.
Interestingly, mice who were not conditioned through exercising but had been given epicatechin actually performed better than mice who had been conditioned already but didn’t receive treatment.
In this study, only very small amounts of epicatechin were used. Effects were noticed after the equivalent of a half a square of dark chocolate consumption. The effect of larger amounts are unknown, and higher consumption may negate the exercise benefits.
8. Prevents Coughing.
Although it would be premature to use medically, dark chocolate is being seriously investigated as a cough suppressant for cancer patients.
It is thought that theobromine might be behind dark chocolate’s effect as an antitussive (prevents coughing). In fact, there is good reason to believe that theobromine helps to prevent coughing; it is structurally very similar to other powerful antitussives.
Theobromine was successfully used to prevent coughing under several different scenarios in both animals and humans, so it is certainly worth considering instead of pharmaceuticals if you have a mild cough.
9. Suppresses Migraines.
Consumption of cocoa reduced inflammation in trigeminal ganglion neurons.
Don’t worry, that is a nonsense word to me, too.
But it turns out that reduced inflammation in those neurons can help deal with the pathology of migraines. Basically, dark chocolate contains certain compounds that may be beneficial in the treatment of migraines.
10. Good For Your Skin.
Chocolate consumption might be help protect your skin. The flavonols in cocoa improve your skin’s resistance to UV radiation.
More fundamentally, high flavanol consumption improves microcirculation in human skin, leading to more oxygen exposure and enhanced delivery of nutrients.
Unfortunately, conventional chocolate will not confer this benefit, because processing removes such a large percentage of the flavanols.
Unless you consume raw cocoa beans or a specially made dark chocolate, you won’t get enough.
You can look for chocolate produced using the Acticoa method, which doesn’t use the high temperatures that destroys most of the flavanols in conventionally made chocolate.
11. Good For Your Gut.
A prebiotic is something that we cannot digest, but the beneficial bacteria in our gut can. Prebiotics improve the health of the bacterial ecosystem inside of us.
Cocoa may or may not be a prebiotic, but it certainly is good for your gut. When on a high cocoa diet, there was a significant increase in levels of lactobacillus and bifidobacteria compared to the low cocoa phase.
Why should you care?
A healthy colony of gut bacteria helps prevent the growth of bad bacteria that makes you sick as well as increase the synthesis of certain vitamins.
Obviously, this is a very good thing.
12. Keeps You Thin.
As if the other health benefits of dark chocolate weren’t enough, there is some evidence that consumption of moderate amounts of chocolate may help keep you thin.
Although causation has not been proven, those who ate moderate amounts of chocolate on a more frequent basis had a significantly lower body mass index than those who ate less chocolate. And this is despite the fact that those who consumed more chocolate tended to consume more calories than those who ate less chocolate!
Even though this study is promising, you would be ill advised to start wolfing down chocolate in an attempt to get lean.
Be careful: Chocolate is high in calories. And if you are like me, you can get carried away and eat absurd amounts. If you don’t balance out the calorie intake, you stand a good chance of gaining weight. Consider yourself warned.
Choose Dark Chocolate
The first and most important rule in choosing a high quality chocolate is to eat the chocolate with the highest percentage cocoa.
Never pick a chocolate that is less than 60% cocoa; anything less is for amateurs. But if you can, you should shoot for an even higher cocoa content. It might taste bitter at first, but you will grow to love it.
Personally, I never eat chocolate that is less than 70% cocoa. I do this because I love the taste, but you should always keep in mind that you will receive more health benefits from the higher percentage chocolates.
Got any other reasons to love dark chocolate? Let me know.