2017-08-02 / Health Care

Why is dark chocolate healthy?

By Dr. David Samadi

Like Forrest Gump in the movie with the same name said, “My momma always said, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’” This well-known, catchy phrase certainly rings true when it comes to chocolate and our health. You open up a box of chocolates and there could be dark chocolate, white chocolate, or milk chocolate but which one is superior when it comes to promoting health? The answer is all in the cacao content with dark chocolate, coming out the winner.

Before gushing over the health benefits of dark chocolate, let’s first take a look at white and milk chocolate and why they don’t quite make the health impact like dark chocolate does:

• White chocolate – Even though the word “chocolate” is associated with “white chocolate,” it really isn’t chocolate at all. There are no cocoa solids and the primary ingredients are not particularly going to do anything for our health – cocoa butter, sugar, milk (this is the one exception), and vanilla. Since there are no health-promoting cocoa solids, this chocolate has no value in regards to cardiovascular health and if eaten in excess, could actually harm it. Its high sugar level can raise blood glucose in those with diabetes and the cocoa butter is no friend to anyone who is trying to lower cholesterol levels.

• Milk chocolate – The sweet, creamy delicate taste of milk chocolate is very alluring but when it comes to any health benefits, it scores very low. Milk chocolate owes its sweetness to the liberal addition of sugar. With the addition of milk, it is hence given the name “milk chocolate.” Because of the milk added to this chocolate, studies have shown that milk proteins inhibit the absorption of cocoa flavonols lowering their potential heart health benefits. Most chocolate found on store shelves is the form of milk chocolate. Consume milk chocolate in moderation limiting the frequency and keeping portions sizes small.

Why dark chocolate is healthy

Dark chocolate is defined by the amount of cacao content, and not by necessarily how dark it is. All chocolate comes from cacao (or cocoa) beans, which are not really beans at all but seed of the fruit of the Theobroma cacao tree.

Since chocolate comes from plants, one of the main health components of this substance is flavonoids which act as antioxidants. Antioxidants protect the body from aging caused by free radicals that can lead to heart damage. There are a number of antioxidants that dark chocolate has – in fact it contains almost 8 times the amount of antioxidants found in strawberries.

When buying dark chocolate, look for chocolate that has at least 70% cacao content or higher. If the package simply says “dark chocolate” but has no cacao content listed, then it is not a heart health promoting type of dark chocolate.

The main health benefit of dark chocolate has to do with cardiovascular health. It is the flavonols dark chocolate contains that puts it head and shoulders above white and milk chocolate. Research suggests that these antioxidant compounds may increase vascular dilation and improve blood flow, reducing the risk of heart disease. It is believed that the flavonols found in chocolate work by increasing the levels and the action of nitric oxide, a naturally occurring compound in the body that acts as a vasodilator, increases insulin sensitivity, and slows down the atherosclerotic process.

Other heart health benefits dark chocolate provides include lowering blood pressure and blood cholesterol. Studies have shown that consuming about one ounce of dark chocolate a day can reduce blood pressure while it has also been shown to reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol by up to 10%.

Besides protecting your heart, dark chocolate has also been shown to stimulate endorphin production – no wonder we always are in a happy mood when eating chocolate! Along with that good news, dark chocolate also contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant, in addition to theobromine and caffeine which are stimulants.

What about fat in chocolate?

Many people have valid concerns of the amount of fat in chocolate. The good news with dark chocolate is there are three types of fat found in dark chocolate and only one of them may have a negative effect on heart health:

Oleic Acid – A healthy monounsaturated fat that is also found in olive oil
Stearic Acid – A saturated fat which has a neutral effect on cholesterol
Palmitic Acid – A saturated fat that can raise cholesterol and heart disease risk.

Eat ‘til your heart’s content?

Before you go out and buy a ton of dark chocolate, remember even dark chocolate can be high in sugar, fat, and calories. Eating too much chocolate of any kind can result in weight gain if you’re not careful. The key is to always balance out the amount of calories you take in with the amount of exercise you should do on most days of the week. This includes dark chocolate - life may be like box of chocolates, just make it a very small box.

Patients newly diagnosed with prostate cancer can contact world-renowned prostate cancer surgeon and urologic oncologist, Dr. David Samadi. For a consultation and to learn more about prostate cancer risk, call 212-365-5000. Dr. Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery and is an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital. He is a medical correspondent for the Fox News Channel's Medical A-Team. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest, SamadiMD.com and Facebook

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