Decadent, rich, smooth, delicious, creamy, luxurious. These are all words that describe chocolate. But there’s another word that is not typically associated with chocolate, healthy. Yes, healthy. There are many health benefits of chocolate, especially dark chocolate.
Chocolate has been enjoyed by people going back to Pre-Columbian Mexico. The Mayans and Aztecs were known to make a beverage from the cocoa tree and when the conquering Spaniards returned to Spain in 1528, they brought the newly discovered chocolate beverage. The first eating chocolate was introduced in 1847 in England but it attracted more attention when a Swiss chocolateer added milk and ultimately sugar in 1874.
Today, we can appreciate why the Mayans and Aztecs found chocolate appealing. The dark, creamy, melt-in-your-mouth properties of chocolate are not only craved by many as a special treat, but also has several health benefits.
Dark chocolate with a high cacao content, is very nutritious. Fiber rich cocoa contains other nutrients, such as iron, magnesium, copper, manganese, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium. Dark Chocolate and cacao also have a respectable fatty acid profile of mostly heart healthful fats.
Dark chocolate is also full of powerful antioxidants. Antioxidants scavenge through the body searching for the destructive free radicals. The antioxidants make the free radicals less harmful to the cells of the body. These antioxidants include polyphenols, flavanols, catechins, among others. Dark chocolate contains more antioxidants than some fruits, including blueberries and Acai berries.
The flavanols in dark chocolate may also protect your skin against the sun. This bioactive compound improves blood flow to the skin while increasing skin hydration and density. This activity reduces redness and protects against sun-induced skin damage. Next time you are planning for a vacation in the sun, try eating a little dark chocolate in the weeks or months prior to your departure.
Your skin isn’t the only part of your body that benefits from dark chocolate. The flavanols not only increase blood flow to your skin, but also to your brain. This may improve cognitive function, verbal fluency and lowers particular risks of disease, especially in the elderly with mental impairment. Cacao also contains the stimulants caffeine and theobromine, which can also improve short-term brain function.
Another little known health benefit of high cacao chocolate is that it may improve blood flow and lower blood pressure. The flavanols in dark chocolate can stimulate the lining of arteries to produce nitric oxide (NO). Nitric oxide is a gas that sends signals to the arteries to relax. This relaxation lowers the resistance of the blood flow, hence reducing blood pressure.
Cholesterol is also affected by the compounds in dark chocolate. It has been shown that these protective antioxidant compounds reduce the “bad” LDL cholesterol, increases the “good” HDL and results in a lower risk of long-term heart disease. One study found that the risk of cardiovascular death was reduced by 50% over a 15 year period in elderly men. This and other observational studies show that there is a benefit to your heart when dark chocolate is included.
Although the dark chocolate you enjoy contains some sugar, there is substantial evidence that the cacao in chocolate provides many health benefits, especially against heart disease. This does not mean that you should consume whole chocolate bars at a sitting. You can enjoy and savor one or two squares as a treat throughout the day but make sure you purchase quality chocolates with at least 70% cacao content.
Lose the guilt knowing that your chocolate treat can be good for you!
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