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Chocolate, red wine, and other expressions of love can be good for you.

The stuff of Valentine's Day may be good for the heart, in more ways than one. Chocolate, red wine, and expressions of love could not only make thumpers go pitter-patter in romantic fashion, they could also lead to better heart health.

According to a growing amount of research, chocolate, red wine, and love can play a role in keeping the blood flowing throughout the body. Experts do not always agree on how these elements boost cardiovascular fitness, nor do they always recommend them as tools for disease prevention. But it's clear that a little of each isn't too bad -- in moderation.

The Sweet Stuff

Many people see chocolate as a guilty pleasure. How many dieters have felt they've committed a sin upon indulging in the cocoa delight? How many mothers have warned their children against eating too much, lest they get cavities?

There's no doubt chocolate can contribute to weight gain and tooth decay, but now researchers are finding it can do good things for the body as well.

"It seems a component in cocoa -- flavonoids -- can be heart healthful," says Susan Moores, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). She says flavonoids are antioxidants, known to protect against free radicals in the body. Free radicals are suspected of damaging arteries and triggering buildup of plaque (fatty substances) in the wall of blood vessels, which can lead to atherosclerosis.

Antioxidants can also help lower the level of "bad" cholesterol (LDL), and increase the amount of "good" cholesterol (HDL). This antioxidant effect is apparently greater in dark chocolate, because it has more cocoa beans, a natural source of flavonoids.

The flavonoids in dark chocolate may also improve the health of the endothelium (the lining in arteries and veins), says Joe Vinson, professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.

In one study, he says people with one risk factor for heart disease (i.e. high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides) drank a single 6-ounce glass of cocoa, rich in flavonoids. From that one drink, researchers reportedly found a significant improvement in the flexibility of the arteries.

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