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4 proven benefits of dark chocolate and the best way to eat it

Business Insider India logoBusiness Insider India 15-10-2020 Ashley Laderer
a wooden cutting board: 4 proven benefits of dark chocolate and the best way to eat it © Emilija Manevska/Getty Images 4 proven benefits of dark chocolate and the best way to eat it
  • Dark chocolate can benefit your brain and heart health, reduce inflammation, and combat oxidative stress in the body.
  • The flavonoids in dark chocolate can lower blood pressure and cholesterol while reducing your risk for blood clots, stroke, and heart disease.
  • To achieve these health benefits, you should eat dark chocolate with 80% cacao.
  • This article was medically reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.

From a young age, we're told to not eat too many sweets, including chocolate. However, dark chocolate, especially if it has a high percentage of cacao, can actually be good for you. This type of chocolate presents a variety of health perks that can benefit your heart, brain, and overall health.

Here's why eating dark chocolate may be good for you.

Dark chocolate can be beneficial for heart health

The reason dark chocolate is beneficial for heart health is that it contains flavonoids, which are antioxidants that come from plants.

Flavonoids may have the following heart health benefits:

  • Lower blood pressure: The mechanisms are not fully known how dark chocolate and its flavonoids lower blood pressure. "It may simply be that the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory parts, as well as the blood-thinning and blood-vessel relaxing properties of these chemicals, are what's responsible for lowering blood pressure," says Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, senior dietitian at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and professor at the Fielding School of Public Health.
  • Lower cholesterol: Flavonoids may increase levels of HDL (high-density lipoprotein), which is known as "good cholesterol," and improve their function. HDL cholesterol absorbs LDL cholesterol (low-density lipoprotein), which is "bad cholesterol," and in turn, lowers cholesterol levels in your body.
  • Prevent blood clots: Flavonoids in dark chocolate have been found to affect blood platelets positively. A 2007 study showed that platelets in modest chocolate eaters' blood were less likely to clot than non-chocolate eaters. The researchers concluded that these anti-clotting effects may be responsible for chocolate's positive effects on cardiovascular health.
  • Prevent stroke: Dark chocolate may reduce stroke risk due to this ability to lower blood pressure, since high blood pressure increases the risk of stroke. Additionally, since it relaxes blood vessels, this can also lower the risk of stroke, Hunnes says.
  • Reduce the risk of heart disease: A 2017 meta-analysis looked at five studies that examined the relationship between chocolate consumption and risk of heart disease. The analysis found that across the five studies, there was a decreased risk of heart disease associated with moderate chocolate consumption.

Dark chocolate can improve brain health

Due to the cardiovascular benefits mentioned above, Hunnes says flavonoids can help increase blood flow to the brain. As a byproduct of this, you will get more oxygen to your brain and move toxins out of the brain more quickly. This protects your brain and can help prevent neurodegenerative conditions, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

A small 2018 study stated that flavonoids can cross the blood-brain barrier and have a positive effect on electrical brain activity, which can improve attention and memory. In this study, the participants consumed 6.8 grams of dark chocolate to reap these benefits.

Hunnes says the increased blood flow may be the mechanism by which dark chocolate is believed to improve memory, and therefore, eating small amounts of dark chocolate each day can have a beneficial effect on overall cognition.

Dark chocolate may help reduce inflammation

According to Hunnes, consuming dark chocolate is a natural way to reduce inflammation in your body. That's because the antioxidants in dark chocolate — particularly flavonoids and polyphenols — have anti-inflammatory properties.

Consuming anti-inflammatory foods provides overall health benefits, such as preventing future chronic diseases like heart disease or type 2 diabetes.

In fact, Hunnes says reducing inflammation can help protect the following organs:

  • Heart
  • Lungs
  • Liver
  • Brain

Dark chocolate reduces oxidative stress in the body

Both flavonoids and polyphenols — antioxidants present in dark chocolate — can also combat the damage of free radicals in the body. Free radicals are natural byproducts of life that may also be caused by pollution or ultraviolet radiation. They can cause damage to our cells' DNA and result in oxidative stress, which can lead to chronic disease.

Because dark chocolate has an extremely high polyphenol content, it may help you reduce oxidative stress and combat free radicals. Here's how dark chocolate stacks up to other antioxidant-rich foods in terms of polyphenol content:

  • Dark chocolate: 1664mg per 100g
  • Milk chocolate: 236mg per 100g
  • Strawberries: 235mg per 100g
  • Coffee: 214mg per 100mL
  • Ginger: 202mg per 100g
  • Red wine: 101mg per 100mL

The best way to consume dark chocolate

When choosing which type of dark chocolate to eat, a higher percentage of cacao is best. "The more cacao, the more healthy nutrients, the less sugar, and the less other potentially negative ingredients," Hunnes says.

In particular, 80% cacao is the minimum that Hunnes recommends for achieving health benefits. Hunnes says that you can have up to 20 to 30 grams per day of 80% dark chocolate, though if it's a lower percentage, you may want to eat a smaller amount each day.

To make your dark chocolate intake even healthier, she also suggests choosing non-dairy versions or trying cacao nibs, which are roasted cacao beans. Hunnes also advises limiting your consumption of less healthy sweets, like milk chocolate or white chocolate, as they contain higher amounts of sugar and fat.

The bottom line

Consuming dark chocolate in moderation is a low-risk, delicious way to improve your overall health and help ward off health problems like stroke, high blood pressure, inflammation, and oxidative stress. Just remember to opt for the highest percentage of cacao for the healthiest option.

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