Chocolate tastes sinfully sweet, but you may no longer need to feel guilty about indulging in an ounce or two a few times a week. A growing number of studies show that chocolate, especially antioxidant-rich dark chocolate, has health benefits that put it squarely on the latest list of superfoods. A key reason chocolate has so many health benefits is that it is rich in flavonoids, which are naturally occurring substances found in plants that can provide a serious boost in antioxidant action for you.
Studies show that the darker the chocolate, the better. Eat only less-processed chocolate that contains at least 65 percent cacao, recommends Joy DuBost, PhD, RD, an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. Not only does dark chocolate have a higher concentration of antioxidants than milk chocolate, but milk chocolate is also higher in added sugar and unhealthy fats. Still, the daily dose of antioxidants in dark chocolate doesn’t give you license to indulge in a dessert free-for-all — dark chocolate is still loaded with fat and calories — so eat a max of 1 to 2 ounces a day. If you do, research says you’ll reap these 9 benefits.
1. It Can Improve Memory Loss
Can’t remember where you put your keys or why you walked into a particular room? Chocolate may help: Recent research suggests that antioxidants called flavanols found in cocoa can help improve function in the area of the brain responsible for this type of age-related memory loss. Participants in the study were placed on a special diet high in raw cocoa flavanols called epicatechin. At the end of the three-month period they scored significantly higher on memory tests than the control group.
But before you run out and stock up on chocolate bars, it’s important to note that you’d have to eat about seven bars a day to ingest the 138 milligrams of epicatechin given to the study participants. A healthy portion of dark chocolate is about 1.5 ounces. However, the results do suggest an important link between the compound and memory-loss. Certain supplements contain healthy doses of epicatechin, and the antioxidant can also be found naturally in apples, blackberries, and green tea.
2. It Fights Free Radicals
Scientists believe when we eat plant foods (luscious dark chocolate comes from the cacao plant) rich in flavonoids and antioxidants, their benefits are passed on to us. Antioxidants protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals, which are unstable oxygen molecules thought to be responsible for aging and some diseases. “When you have too many free radicals in your body, they start to attack your cells, and that can lead, over time, to low-grade inflammation and to some diseases — cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s,” DuBost says.
3. It Prevents Heart Disease
Among dark chocolate’s most researched benefit is its role in preventing heart disease. British researchers analyzed seven studies on chocolate and cardiovascular health involving more than 114,000 people in the United States, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and Sweden and found that people who ate more chocolate significantly reduced their risk for heart disease. Researchers concluded that people who ate the most chocolate weekly had a 37 percent lower risk of any heart disease than those who ate the least amounts of dark chocolate.
4. It Decreases Stroke Risk
A recent study by Swedish researchers found that women who ate high amounts of chocolate — about two candy bars per week — had a 20 percent lower risk of stroke. In a similar study, British researchers also found that people who ate more chocolate were 30 percent less likely to have a stroke. However, researchers added that more study is needed to determine the exact amount and types of flavonoid-rich chocolates that would be most help lessen stroke risk.
5. It Raises Good Cholesterol
Dark chocolate is also being touted as a cholesterol-lowering superfood. It’s the cocoa butter that does the trick, DuBost explains. Cocoa butter contains oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated fat — the same fat you find in heart-healthy olive oil. Scientists believe that this monounsaturated fat can actually raise your HDL, or good, cholesterol. However, DuBost says, many of the studies on chocolate and good cholesterol are short-term, and it may be premature to say that chocolate is a cholesterol cure-all.
6. It Lowers Blood Pressure
A German study of the diets of more than 19,000 people found that eating chocolate may help lower blood pressure, and in turn, cardiovascular disease risk. A widespread analysis of numerous studies on the topic conducted by Australian researchers also found limited but noticeable blood pressure benefits from eating the superfood. Again, very few studies pinpoint the exact amount of dark chocolate or flavonoids needed to get this effect, and more scientific study is needed.
7. It Improves Vision
Dark chocolate may have something in common with carrots: Researchers from the University of Reading in England tested the eyesight of 30 healthy adults, 18 to 25 years old, after they ate white and dark chocolates. The subjects performed better on vision tests after eating the dark chocolate. It could be that the flavanols in dark chocolate, which improve blood flow to the brain, improve blood flow to the retina as well — and white chocolate doesn’t have nearly the same amount of flavanols as dark chocolate.
8. It’s a Mood Booster
No, it’s not your imagination; some research supports the idea that chocolate really can boost your mood. It’s the fatty acids that do the trick, and dark chocolate contains two saturated fatty acids — palmitic and stearic acids — in addition to its health-boosting flavonoids. More research needs to be done, DuBost says, but studies have found that chocolate in particular can make you feel happier and improve your mood. The theory is that chocolate stimulates the neural activity in the regions of the brain associated with pleasure and reward, she says.
9. It Helps Prevent Cancer
Evidence that dark chocolate may play a role in cancer prevention is limited but growing. Some preliminary studies on three continents — Europe, Asia, and North America — have shown that people who eat many flavonoids or a lot of antioxidant-rich chocolate develop fewer cancers than those who don’t consume them. Of the many flavonoids in chocolate, two in particular, epicatechin and quercetin, are believed to be responsible for the cancer-fighting properties.
10. It May Help You Live Longer
As if the other benefits weren’t enough, a Harvard University study found that one or two doses of dark chocolate per week could even help you live longer. In the study, researchers compared men who ate chocolate with those who didn’t and found that the former group lived one year longer. More research is still being conducted to determine the exact role chocolate plays in longevity.
This article was originally posted on everydayhealth.com.