With the mercury dipping and Valentine's Day approaching, a cup of hot cocoa or a bite of silky, rich dark chocolate seems that much more appealing. And it should: Chocolate actually has several health benefits. We've rounded up the most compelling evidence on why it's good to indulge your craving.
1. It's (Almost) a Diet Food
Preliminary findings from Hershey suggest that natural cocoa, which has more flavonols than Dutch-processed cocoa, might limit the number of calories you actually take in during digestion by quashing the action of certain digestive enzymes, thus preventing some fats and starches in other foods from being absorbed. More research is needed—this study was done in test tubes, not with humans—but the authors hope that the results will hold up in human trials.
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As Joyce Hendley reported in EatingWell magazine, a large study out of Harvard, published in 2010, found that women who ate one or two ounces of chocolate a week had a 32% lower risk of heart failure than women who didn't eat any chocolate. It's possible that compounds in cocoa called flavonols help activate enzymes that release nitric oxide—a substance that helps widen and relax blood vessels. That allows blood to flow through the vessels more freely, reducing blood pressure. Nitric oxide is also involved in thinning blood and reducing its tendency to clot—lowering, potentially, the risk of stroke. Not only that, some of the key flavonols in cocoa, catechins and epicatechins (also found in red wine and green tea), are known to have heart-healthy, antioxidant effects—such as helping to prevent artery-threatening LDL cholesterol from converting to a more lethal, oxidized form.
Just the sight of chocolate can evoke a smile, according to a recent British survey. 60% of women ranked chocolate as the most smileworthy experience, edging out loved ones and other smiling people. (FYI, the top pick for men was a Sunday roast.)
When researchers had study participants eat dark chocolate, they were better able to distinguish items on a similarly colored background and took less time to detect the direction of moving dots (two measurements important for night driving) than when they ate white chocolate. Researchers think that flavonols—antioxidants present in dark chocolate, but absent in white chocolate—improved vision.
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1. Not All Chocolate is Created Equal
Alkalized cocoa powder (also known as Dutch-processed) doesn't pack the health punch of the natural kind. That's because a lot of the beneficial antioxidants are stripped during processing. When buying cocoa powder for a recipe or to make hot chocolate, choose natural cocoa powder to reap more of cocoa's health benefits.
Let's face it, chocolate is high in calories. Just 1 ounce delivers 160 calories, thanks to the sugar and cocoa butter that get added to it. To curb your calorie intake, choose chocolate with a high cacao content, 70% or higher—it's more intensely flavored and will satisfy your craving in fewer bites. Or make a hot cocoa (natural cocoa, please) with skim or 1% milk. A tablespoon of cocoa has just 12 calories and a teaspoon of sugar has 30 (you might need two of these).
If you're sensitive to caffeine or trying to limit your intake, keep in mind that chocolate is a source of caffeine (and no, I haven't seen any caffeine-free alternatives yet). One ounce of chocolate has 23 mg of caffeine—about the amount in half a cup of tea—but a whole bar delivers up to 100 mg, equivalent to a cup of coffee.
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