February 1 is National Dark Chocolate Day and the beginning of National Heart Month. And on February 14, Americans express hearts full of love by eating more chocolate than on any other day of the year. Is there a connection between dark chocolate, health, and our hearts?
Chocolate Health Claims
There have been claims of dark chocolate's "health food" status for years now, but are they true? Is dark chocolate good for you?
Rumors of dark chocolate being good for the heart, the skin, and even our mood are enticing and studies have even been done on them. If, by chance, science suggests these are true, what type of chocolate are they referring to? And how much chocolate can you eat to experience the health benefits?
In the spirit of Valentine's Day, let's begin with the heart.
Dark Chocolate and Heart Health
While some studies have shown that dark chocolate can raise the "good" HDL cholesterol and lower the "bad" LDL cholesterol, other research suggests that this can only occur in its unprocessed, raw state at such high doses that it must come in injectable or pill form. In other words, the research findings are inconsistent.
However, this is what the science does confirm:
70% or higher cacao, cocoa, or chocolate liquor content offers the most benefits. The three terms can be used interchangeably and the higher its content, the more antioxidant and anti-inflammatory power it has.
Fending off oxidative stress and inflammation are key to a healthy heart.
Dark Chocolate and Skin
There are also claims that dark chocolate can help prevent acne, eliminate scars, and provide a healthy epidermal layer. A study in the Journal of Nutrition showed that women who drank a dark chocolate beverage had a 25% reduction in skin reddening after UV exposure. They also had thicker, smoother, and less scaly skin.
Here is what we do know about dark chocolate and the skin:
Raw or limited processed cocoa contains vitamins E and B, as well as magnesium, copper, phosphorus and zinc. A 1 oz. portion per day of 70% cocoa or higher is recommended for skin health.
Dark Chocolate as a Mood Enhancer
You would think that we wouldn't have to turn to science to tell us that chocolate can make you happy. That is a given. It turns out though, that chocolate can also make you sad and fearful.
Because depression can be characterized as the absence of "sensory gratification," some individuals may not find pleasure in chocolate. In other cases, studies have concluded that dieters and people struggling with obesity fear chocolate because it raises feelings of guilt when eaten.
Much of the research does show a positive effect on mood, however. High-flavonol cocoa- whether eaten or drank- has been shown to increase cerebral blood flood. Some scientists think this can reduce vascular depression.
Others argue there has to be another mechanism that improves mood. For instance, phenylethylamine and tryptophan are compounds found in chocolate that help relax nerves and may help with depression. Cocoa also appears to increase endorphin levels.
Although they're ensure how it works, scientists think that cocoa-derived products may complement traditional depression treatments.
Dark Chocolate, in any form, may enhance your mood.
How To Get the Health Benefits of Chocolate
Here are some tips to enjoy the health benefits of dark chocolate without the consequences of high calorie, sugar, and saturated fat intake:
Look for cacao as the 1st ingredient instead of sugar.
Eat at least 70% cacao. (But you’ll get more of the antioxidants and less calories, saturated fat, and sugar if you eat 85% or higher.)
Enjoy chocolate without dairy milk. Some research shows that milk binds antioxidants so your body can’t use them.
Swap out your afternoon coffee for brewed cacao. Try pressing ground cacao beans in a French press like you would for coffee. The drink contains no sugar, fat, or calories, and very little caffeine. (It does contain theobromine, though, which is a stimulant.) Crio Bru makes ready-to-brew ground cacao that emits an aroma of melting chocolate.
Eat or drink about 1 oz (1 square) per day. This is often enough to satisfy your cravings. And if there are health benefits, they will come with consistent intake...meaning eat dark chocolate everyday!
Try out this hot chocolate recipe:
1 cup non-dairy milk
2 Tbsp cocoa (not Dutch-processed; Dutch-processed cocoa is over-processed and lacks nutrients)
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
Pour all ingredients into a pot of medium heat.
Heat and stir constantly just until the hot chocolate comes to a simmer.
Remove from heat and enjoy once cool enough.
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