Is dark chocolate good for your heart? According to a study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, a journal of the European Society of Cardiology in 2020, eating chocolate at least once a week helps reduce the risk of heart disease. The study says that eating chocolate more than once a week was associated with an eight per cent decreased risk of coronary artery disease.
The lead author of the study, Dr Chayakrit Krittanawong of Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, said in a press release, “chocolate contains heart-healthy nutrients such as flavonoids, methylxanthines, polyphenols and stearic acid which may reduce inflammation and increase good cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol).”
Experts say that chocolates should be consumed at moderate levels for heart health. It is unlikely that large amounts of chocolates will help. “The calories, sugar, milk and fat in commercially available products need to be considered, particularly in diabetics and obese people,” he adds.
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The study did not particularly examine what type of chocolate is more beneficial but earlier studies have shown, and experts say that dark chocolates with maximum cocoa are better than milk chocolates.
According to the FDA, chocolate must have at least 35 per cent cocoa to be called dark.
The higher the cocoa content, the better it is. The reason – the presence of heart-friendly flavonoids (compounds found mostly in plant products that offer health benefits through their antioxidant properties.) Experts suggest chocolates with 70 to 80 per cent cocoa content as they contain a small amount of sugar for flavour and a good healthy amount of flavonoids. The type of flavonoids found in chocolates is flavanols.
Benefits of dark chocolate for heart health
Dr Praveen P Sadarmin, consultant interventional cardiologist, Narayana Health City, Bengaluru, says that it has been generally accepted that dark chocolate is good for cardiovascular health. “Most of the studies have been done with dark chocolate. Multiple studies including more than 500,000 patients have shown beneficial effects of moderate chocolate consumption and improvement in cardiovascular health – that is coronary artery disease, stroke and even diabetes,” he says, adding that chocolate is an abundant source of flavanols such as epicatechin, catechin and procyanidins. The protective role of chocolate has been against oxidative stress, inflammation, endothelial dysfunction (when the endothelial layer of arteries that helps regulate blood clotting fails to function normally) and atherogenesis (formation of fat deposits in the arteries).
“The clinical effects of chocolate include a favourable impact on cardiometabolic risk factors such as blood pressure, lipid profile, flow-mediated dilatation (dilation of an artery when the flow of blood increases in that artery) and insulin sensitivity. Some studies have estimated a relative risk reduction of six to ten per cent of coronary heart disease, 13-16 per cent of stroke and eight to 18 per cent of diabetes mellitus,” adds Dr Sadarmin.
Flavonoids help improve endothelial function by releasing nitric oxide; it also reduces insulin resistance and weight gain. If the endothelial function is good, there will be low occurrences of cholesterol deposits, reducing the chances of the development of atherosclerosis (accumulation of fats, cholesterol on the artery walls).
Best dark chocolate for heart health
Dark chocolate contains little or no milk and is mostly comprised of cocoa solids, cocoa butter and sugar. It is often semi-sweet and has a slightly bitter flavour. Dr Sadarmin says milk chocolate contains more milk and dairy fat, giving it a creamy structure and lighter brown colour with less bitter flavour than dark chocolate. “White chocolate does not contain any cocoa solids. It contains cocoa butter, milk and sugar. There is evidence of dark chocolate reducing inflammation in the vascular tree (arrangement of blood vessels). Studies have shown that cocoa lowers LDL cholesterol levels just after four weeks of intervention. A modest increase in HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) was also noted,” he says.
Diabetes and dark chocolate
Ushma Jhaveri, a 31-year-old corporate communications professional in Bengaluru, has observed that her sugar levels have come under control with daily consumption of bite-sized dark chocolate, exercises and proper diet.
She says she has always loved chocolate and she developed a liking, especially for dark chocolate in 2020. To her delight, she found the nutritional benefits of dark chocolate during her research after her diagnosis of diabetes three years ago. Since then, she has included dark chocolate in her daily diet. “They are good organic sources of sugar. My sugar levels have been under control and as per my understanding, so is my cholesterol. The ratio of HDL and triglyceride levels has always been below 1. I’ve been doing my routine blood work every quarter or once in six months and they’ve been normal. I haven’t done a heart check-up since my blood reports have not been worrisome,” she says.
Susan Yake, a US-based clinical dietitian, says, “some people, not all, find that moderate amounts of chocolate do not raise their glucose levels. Others find that a serving of chocolate-covered nuts works well for the control of diabetes when they want something sweet.” She adds that research suggests chocolate may strengthen the heart muscle and also helps control blood pressure.
Yake has been monitoring her glucose levels regularly and says her HbA1C test results improved when she added 100 calories of dark chocolate in the mid-afternoon to cut her appetite and satisfy her sweet tooth. The app that she uses to predict her blood sugar response identified her as one of those people whose glucose does not elevate from eating a small serving of dark chocolate. “This is not the case for everyone. It is linked to your microbiome and how your gut responds to food,” she says, adding that as she is sensitive to wheat and is forced to pass on many desserts, she is glad to have found a small portion of chocolate (about 100 calories worth) each day to satisfy her sweet tooth. “The portion of chocolate I eat score excellent on the app – 9.6 on a scale of 1 to 9.9 with the highest number being the best,” she shares.
Health benefits of eating dark chocolate daily
Dr Sadarmin says that studies suggest no more than or equal to three servings of dark chocolate a week (one serving is approximately 30 g of chocolate) for maximum health benefits.
Dark chocolates contain micronutrients, which offer great nutritional benefits.
- Dark chocolates contain high levels of magnesium, which promotes protein synthesis and muscle relaxation.
- It contains copper, which helps build immunity.
- It is rich in antioxidants.
- It helps improve cardiovascular health.
- It can help reduce cholesterol, insulin resistance and hence, blood glucose levels.
- It may help reduce blood pressure.
- May help protect the skin from the sun.
Chocolate for healthy heart
- Ensure sugar is listed at the bottom of the list of ingredients. Sugar is often added to dark chocolate to balance the bitterness.
- A good dark chocolate should not contain milk. It can contain milk fats, which are essentially butter, added for flavour but it is optional.
- If you are looking for flavoured dark chocolates, choose organic ones.
- Avoid dark chocolates with trans fats, which are added to improve the shelf life of the product.
- Chocolate with a higher per cent of cocoa is better as it contains more concentration of antioxidants and less sugar.