Chocolate and its Amazing Effects on the Heart

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Ask around and chances are everyone loves chocolate. It’s smooth and silky texture and the varieties that it is available in make it quite an indulgence.

For many years now, we have believed that eating chocolate can be bad for health. But over the recent years, scientific evidence has emerged that now clarifies a whole new stand: chocolate is good for you.

Don’t get us wrong, too much of a good thing can be bad, and that holds true for chocolate. In moderation, chocolate seems to have numerous health benefits. In this article, we shall take a look at these in a little more detail.

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Is chocolate good for the heart?

In one word – Yes.

Chocolates are made from cocoa bean – a special bean that is rich in compounds called flavonoids. Flavonoids are present in a variety of different fruits and vegetables and can help keep the body healthy  through their antioxidant effects.

In our body, the numerous physiological processes that take place a result in the formation of free radicals  which can be harmful to cells. Furthermore, exposure to environmental toxins such as smoke can also result in the formation of these free radicals. Flavonoids help fight these free radicals and can maintain good health of the cells in our body.  In addition to this, they also prevent the formation of harmful LDL cholesterol which is responsible for the development of atherosclerosis.

The primary flavonoid that is present in chocolate and cocoa is flavonols. This product has a number of beneficial effects on the health of blood vessels and the heart. Studies have shown that by stimulating cells called endothelial cells to produce nitric oxide, they can help relax the blood vessels, reduce blood pressure,  improve the flow of blood to the heart and to the brain and can also prevent the blood from clotting abnormally.

Chocolates can help patients with heart failure

Heart failure is a condition where the heart feels to pump blood effectively to all the vital organs. It is associated with a high morbidity and mortality rate  and requires aggressive treatment and strict lifestyle changes. The cocoa in chocolate has been shown from clinical studies  to stimulate the release of a compound called nitric oxide which in turn  relaxes the walls of the blood vessels cocoa-beans-499970_1280(Flammer, 2012).

The study, which looked at 20 patients with congestive heart failure found that those individuals who consumed  chocolate regularly over a four-week period had  better functioning blood vessels, less sticky platelets and better relaxation and blood flow through the arteries. This in turn translates into tremendous cardiovascular benefits for this group of patients.

Chocolates can reduce heart disease and stroke

Recently, a scientific group from the University of Aberdeen published a rather remarkable paper that concluded that individuals who ate a small bar of chocolate a day had a 11%  lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and is 23% reduced risk of developing a stroke. The study led by Dr Phyo Myint was an observational study conducted over a 12 year period and looked at over 25,000 men and women  in Norfolk in the United Kingdom.

However, it must be remembered that this study does not prove that eating chocolate reduces heart disease for sure but instead just links the two together in a favourable manner. What this would mean  is that it does not appear that eating up to 100 g of chocolate a day has any negative benefits as such.

Be that as it may, it is important for all of us to recognise that chocolate also contains additional  components such as fat that can lead to weight gain. Eating chocolate regularly must be done so  along with a healthy diet and plenty of exercise.

Chocolate can reduce blood pressure

There are certain clinical studies that have shown that regular consumption chocolate is associated with a small decrease in blood pressure.

However, this observation is controversial, and not accepted by all scientific authorities. Most of the studies that have been performed are in a small number of individuals, and larger studies are yet to be conducted.

Chocolate may improve blood cholesterol levels

There are a number of studies that have looked at whether chocolate consumption affects levels of cholesterol in the blood. Yet again, the results are inconclusive.

For example, a study looking at young individuals eating a 46gm bar of chocolate instead of snack high in carbohydrates had an increase in their HDL (good cholesterol) levels, but no decrease in their LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. A study in patients with high blood pressure who are 100gm of chocolate rich in flavonoids demonstrated a reduction in the level of their bad cholesterol to the tune of 12%.

The cocoa also seems to reduce the chances of harmful ‘oxidised’ LDL from forming.

However, it must be remembered that these quantities in studies were quite fixed, and there is no real guarantee that this will happen to you.

What kind of  chocolate is the ‘healthiest’?

When chocolate is manufactured, and goes through a rather long process which can reduce the quantity of flavonoids in them. Fermentation and roasting processes are the likely cause. Even the manufacturing of dark chocolate seems to undergo the same  process these days.

For now, dark chocolate still appears to be slightly healthier than milk chocolate mostly because milk chocolate has more sugar and fat in it.

One question that may cross your mind  is whether the fat in chocolate  is harmful.  Interestingly, cocoa butter that is used in manufacturing of chocolate is quite high in heart healthy monounsaturated fats such as oleic acid and stearic acid. Also, one must remember that these benefits would mostly be with simple, plain chocolate and not those that have got chewy caramel or other fillings in them.

Dark chocolate eaten wisely and in moderation is probably the best kind of chocolate to eat.

The dark side

While chocolate may no doubt have benefits on the heart, it is important to consume it in moderation only.

Excessive chocolate consumption has been associated with weight gain and diabetes, likely secondary to the sugar content of the chocolate. Obesity is a risk factor in the development of heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure, especially if there is complete lack of exercise.

So, how much do I eat?

Well, it is best to avoid chocolate completely! Flavonoids are present in fresh fruit and vegetables, so there is no real need for you to grab a bar of chocolate for ‘health reasons’!

If you do have a sweet tooth, then do your best to keep your chocolate intake to a minimum. Eat a small piece of chocolate instead of a whole bar.

Also, make sure you exercise a little more to burn off the harmful sugars.

A note for diabetics

If you suffer from diabetes, then it is still possible to eat chocolate, provided they are made with sugar alcohols rather than sugars.

There are plenty of sugar-free treats available these days, and you can purchase them easily online.

To conclude…

If you love chocolate, then you are in for a treat when it comes to the health of your heart. Chocolate and heart disease seem to have a close relationship, one that is based on moderation and balance. Indulgence is all well and good, but make sure you keep an eye on what you eat. Always make sure your doctor gives you the go ahead regarding eating chocolate.


References

Andres-Lacueva C, Monagas M, Khan N, Izquierdo-Pulido M, Urpi-Sarda M, Permanyer J, Lamuela-Raventos RM. Flavanol and flavonol contents of cocoa powder products: influence of the manufacturing process. J Agric Food Chem, 2008; 56:3111-3117.

Corti, Roberto, et al. “Cocoa and cardiovascular health.” Circulation 119.10 (2009): 1433-1441.
Flammer, Andreas J., et al. “Cardiovascular effects of flavanol-rich chocolate in patients with heart failure.” European heart journal 33.17 (2012): 2172-2180.
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Dr Vivek Baliga B
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