Chocolate: Health Food or Not?

At this time of year, perhaps you’ve finished off your Valentine’s Day chocolate, only to be looking forward to some chocolate in your Easter basket soon.  Americans definitely need to cut down on sweets:  The high sugar and saturated fat content in most milk chocolate can be a contributor to obesity and metabolic syndrome (a combination of insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and abnormal blood lipid levels).

On the other hand, the evidence for the health benefits of chocolate have been accumulating more and more in recent years.  The perks seem to be related to the flavanol content of the cocoa bean (Theobroma cacao).  The higher the cocoa (cacao) content, the better:  and dark chocolate (55% cacao or higher) is your best bet.  Eating an average of about one ounce per day can really boost cardiovascular and general health, including:

  • Decreasing stroke risk by 14% for women (1) or 17% for men (2)
  • Decreasing risk of heart failure in older women by 26-32% (3)
  • Modestly reducing blood pressure (4-7)
  • Decreasing “bad” cholesterol (LDL), and increasing “good” cholesterol (HDL) (8-9)
  • Improving cognitive function (10)
  • Most surprising of all:  decreasing body mass index (BMI) (11).  In other words, chocolate can lead to weight loss!
Just remember to enjoy your dark chocolate in moderation, as part of an overall nutrient-dense Mediterranean-type diet, including lots of fruits and veggies, nuts, legumes, lean protein, and healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil.
  1. Larsson SC, Virtmo J, Wolk A. Chocolate consumption and risk of stroke in women. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2011;58:1828-1829.
  2. Larsson SC, Virtamo J, Wolk A. Chocolate consumption and risk of stroke: a prospective cohort of men and meta-analysis. Neurology. 2012;79:1223-1229.
  3. Mostofsky E, Levitan EB, Wolk A, Mittleman MA. Chocolate intake and incidence of heart failure: a population-based prospective study of middle-aged and elderly women. Circ Heart Fail. 2010;3:612-616.
  4. Ried K, Sullivan TR, Fakler P, Franks OR, Stocks NP. Effect of cocoa on blood pressure. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;8:CD008893.
  5. Buijsse B, Weikert C, Drogan D, Bergmann M, Boeing H. Chocolate consumption in relation to blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease in German adults. Eur Heart J. 2010;31:1616-1623.
  6. Taubert D, Roesen R, Lehmann C, Jung N, Schömig E. Effects of low habitual cocoa intake on blood pressure and bioactive nitric oxide: a randomized controlled trial. JAMA. 2007;298:49-60.
  7. Buijsse B, Feskens EJ, Kok FJ, Kromhout D. Cocoa intake, blood pressure, and cardiovascular mortality: the Zutphen Elderly Study. Arch Intern Med. 2006;166:411-417.
  8. Jia L, Liu X, Bai YY, et al. Short-term effect of cocoa product consumption on lipid profile: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;92:218-225.
  9. Mursu J, Voutilainen S, Nurmi T, et al. Dark chocolate consumption increases HDL cholesterol concentration and chocolate fatty acids may inhibit lipid peroxidation in healthy humans. Free Radic Biol Med. 2004;37:1351-1359.
  10. Desideri G, Kwik-Uribe C, Grassi D, et al. Benefits in cognitive function, blood pressure, and insulin resistance through cocoa flavanol consumption in elderly subjects with mild cognitive impairment: the Cocoa, Cognition, and Aging (CoCoA) study. Hypertension. 2012;60:794-801.
  11. Golomb BA, Koperski S, White HL. Association between more frequent chocolate consumption and lower body mass index. Arch Intern Med. 2012;172:519-521.

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