Eating (some kinds of ) chocolate at least once a week can lower your risk of heart disease
Chocolate has been accused of corroding teeth, expanding waistlines and being generally bad for health.
However, according to a meta study – a combined analysis of studies involving 336,289 participants reporting their chocolate consumption – chocolate keeps the blood vessels healthy, making it a promising preventative measure for cardiovascular disease (CVD). In fact, results from the studies even showed that those who ate chocolate once a week were 8% less likely to develop coronary artery disease than those who ate chocolate less frequently.
So, what is in chocolate that’s good for us?
According to Dr Michael MacDonald, Senior Consultant Cardiologist at the Harley Street Heart and Vascular Centre, chocolate’s cardiovascular benefits lie in its key ingredient: cocoa.
Cocoa contains several nutritional compounds, including healthy fats, theobromine, caffeine, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and magnesium. But, more importantly, as Dr MacDonald points out, cocoa is rich in heart-healthy flavonoids, even more than in tea or wine.
“Flavonoids are a powerful antioxidant that fights free radicals, allowing your body to function more efficiently, while protecting against daily toxins and stressors. These flavonoids, including epicatechins, catechins, and procyanidins, which also improve insulin sensitivity, high blood pressure, and endothelial function, thereby reducing the risk of diabetes, atherosclerosis, CVDs,” Dr MacDonald says.
What’s more, chocolate is also considered a brain food as some of these compounds and minerals improve cognitive function, relieve fatigue, and reduce stress by promoting feelings of pleasure and motivation.
Are all types of chocolate healthy?
While chocolate may be good for you, it should come as no surprise that eating the wrong types of chocolate may do more harm than good.
According to Rddhi Naidu, Senior Clinical Dietician and founder of Nutriology at the Arden Metabolic Centre, not all forms of chocolate are considered equally healthy due to processes and heating which are applied to foods to make them more suitable for consumption or storage.
“Processing and heating can cause cocoa to lose its beneficial properties. For example, chocolate is often treated with alkaline to reduce its bitterness, which results in up to 60% decrease in flavonol content.”
Dr MacDonald also shares that the health benefits of chocolate does not depend on whether it comes from a fancy chocolatier or the supermarket. What matter is its cocoa content.
“The rule of thumb is – the darker the chocolate, the higher its cocoa content, which means greater levels of antioxidants and other beneficial compounds,” explains Dr MacDonald.
“Conversely, the lighter the chocolate, the higher its fat and sugar content, which can increase cholesterol accumulation, weight gain, high blood pressure, and diabetes.”
Choosing the healthiest variety of chocolate
There are three main types of chocolate, each with varying cocoa content and corresponding nutritional value.
Dark chocolate: Also called semi-sweet chocolate, this delicious treat must contain at least 35% cocoa to be called dark. The remainder is a combination of butter, sugar, flavourings and milk for texture.
Milk chocolate: Probably the most popular of all three chocolates, milk chocolate has a lower ratio of cocoa (10%) to milk solids (12%).
White chocolate: In contrast to dark and milk, it has zero cocoa content but contains 55% sugar and 20% cocoa butter, in addition to milk solids.
“If you want to eat chocolate every day, I suggest dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa, as these provide the best cardio-protective effects. I also recommend eating milk chocolate in limited amounts because it has more sugar and fat, and to eat as little white chocolate as possible, or preferably none at all, because it’s mostly sugar and fat with almost zero nutritional content,” advises Dr MacDonald.
As for what dark chocolate products offer the best cardio-protective effects, Ms Rddhi suggests reading the products’ label before buying and going for those that are less processed, are sugar free, and have no fillings.
“Like Dr MacDonald, I too recommend chocolate with at least 70% cocoa because these have less sugar. Or, better yet, choose the no-sugar or Stevia-sweetened varieties. I also do not recommend chocolate containing trans fats and fillings such as caramel, fruit, or nuts, as well as alkalised or Dutch chocolate as these have reduced flavonol content,” she adds.
At the end of the day, eat in moderation
While dark chocolate is chock-full of heart-healthy nutrients, it should still be treated like candy due to its sugar, milk solids, and fat content.
In fact, although dark chocolate is lower in energy content than milk or white chocolate, it nevertheless contains 150 to 170 calories per 30g serving, or approximately 500 to 600 calories per 100g .
This is why Dr MacDonald recommends no more than 30g of dark chocolate per day, as the treat can still contribute to weight gain if eaten excessively.
“As someone who has a terrible sweet tooth, I try to avoid too many sweet things because I tend to overeat them. Therefore, one small bar at the weekend for me is enough,” he says.
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Featured photo by Dreamstime.
Dr Michael MacDonald’s photo courtesy of Harley Street Heart and Vascular Centre.
Ms Rddhi Naidu’s photo courtesy of Arden Metabolic Centre.