Chocolate’s Role in Heart Health

By Jan Skaar, RD, CSP, CNSC, CLE, clinical dietitian at CHOC Children’s

You are not alone in your love for chadorable girl eating chocolate a over white backgroundocolate! February is National Chocolate Lover’s Month, and recently there has been an increasing focus on the potential health benefits of chocolate.

The connection between the benefits of cocoa and cardiovascular health stems from the study of Kuna Indians, a population living on islands off the coast of Panama. Their diet contains a very high intake of cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate. As noted in the journal Circulation 2009, the incidence of cardiovascular events in the population is low, however the people lose this protective effect if they are moved to an urban environment and their cocoa intake is significantly reduced.

A review of 42 randomized controlled trials on the effects of chocolate or cocoa intake on cardiovascular risk factors was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in March 2012. Improvement in insulin resistance, blood glucose levels and blood pressure were noted.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania compared the effects of eating chocolate on heart health among older women. Hospitalizations and deaths related to atherosclerosis were lower among people who ate chocolate one to six times per week. This group had a lower rate of ischemic heart disease, heart failure, and also fewer atherosclerotic plaques (Archives of Internal Medicine).

Besides the potential benefits of chocolate on our health, it can contribute a significant amount of calories to our diet. An ounce and a half of chocolate can provide about 230 calories or a 10 percent caloric increase in a typical diet. Moderation is key and balancing your caloric intake to avoid excessive weight gain is essential.

Many people crave chocolate. A possible source is serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of well-being. Low serotonin levels may be associated with cravings for simple carbohydrates, sugars and fats. Chocolate is known to increase serotonin levels in your brain. Increased serotonin levels can help reduce anxiety and stress. The sugar and caffeine content of chocolate may help to raise blood sugar levels if low. Exercise can help produce the same hormones your body is craving to feel good. If you decide to give in to your chocolate craving, try a small square of high-quality dark chocolate and adjust your caloric intake for the day.

Learn more about clinical nutrition and lactation services at CHOC.

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