The Possible Health Benefits of Chocolate
More research needs to be done, but recent studies suggest four possible health benefits of dark chocolate and cocoa.
1. They May Reduce the Risk of Heart Attack.
A few squares of dark chocolate a day can reduce the risk of death from heart attack by almost 50% in some cases, says Diane Becker, MPH, ScD, a researcher with the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. Becker's research found that blood platelets clotted more slowly in people who had eaten chocolate than in those who had not. This is significant because when platelets clump, a clot can form, and when the clot blocks a blood vessel, it can lead to a heart attack.
"The flavanols in cocoa beans have a biochemical effect of reducing platelet clumping, similar to but much less than aspirin," Becker says in an email interview.
After reviewing 136 scientific publications on chocolate and its components and heart disease, researchers from Harvard University School of Public Health concluded that short-term studies suggest cocoa and chocolate may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by:
2. They May Decrease Blood Pressure and Increase Insulin Sensitivity
Researchers in Italy recently fed 15 healthy people either 3 ounces of dark chocolate or the same amount of white chocolate -- which contains no flavanol phytochemicals -- for 15 days. They found that insulin resistance (a risk factor for diabetes) was significantly lowered in those who ate the dark chocolate. Systolic blood pressure (the first number in a blood pressure reading), measured daily, was also lower in the group eating dark chocolate.
3. They May Improve Arterial Blood Flow
Healthy men who consume flavanol-rich cocoa may see improvements in the flow of blood through their arteries, according to recent research. The researchers found that when healthy men consumed the flavanol-rich cocoa, the ability of their blood vessels to relax improved significantly. And arterial blood flow is important for cardiovascular health.
4. They May Help People with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
In a small study in England, 1 1/2 ounces of 85% cocoa dark chocolate was given to a group of adults with chronic fatigue syndrome every day for eight weeks. In the study, which has been submitted for publication, the participants reported feeling less fatigued after eating the chocolate. Surprisingly, no weight gain was reported in the chocolate-eating group, according to researcher Steve Atkin, PhD.
How might it work? The researchers believe that chocolate enhances the action of neurotransmitters, like serotonin, which help regulate mood and sleep. More research needs to be done to confirm a benefit in this area.