I love to share good news, and the fact that dark chocolate has been proven to offer a variety of heart health benefits is certainly something we can all cheer about. While I have long believed that dark chocolate, eaten in moderation, can be part of a heart healthy diet, studies in the past few years have provided even more evidence that dark chocolate is good for your heart.
Heart Health Benefit #1: Dark Chocolate Helps to Lower Blood Pressure Naturally
Eating dark chocolate (which is 65% polyphenol-rich cocoa) helps to lower your blood pressure naturally. A 2011 study compared 14,310 adults living in Jordan, placing them in one of three categories: those with mild dark chocolate intake (1-2 bars per week), moderate intake (3-4 bars per week), and high intake (more than 4 bars per week).
The size or type of the chocolate bars eaten by the participants wasn’t specified, but all blood pressure levels were measured by well-trained pharmaceutical students. What the researchers found is that those participants who ate the highest amounts of dark chocolate had a significant decrease in blood pressure levels, regardless of their age or family history of hypertension. So, dark chocolate helped to lower blood pressure naturally. The other surprise was that the researchers reported no increase in heart rate with chocolate consumption.
Heart Health Benefit #2: Dark Chocolate Lowers the Risk of Cardiometabolic Disorders
British researchers in Paris performed a meta-analysis of seven previous studies examining dark chocolate and heart health, releasing their findings in the British Medical Journal. What they found is that higher dark chocolate intake is associated with a lower risk of developing cardiometabolic disorders—which is a combination of risk factors that can lead to both heart disease and diabetes.
The studies they reviewed were not limited to dark chocolate intake, but chocolate in any form: chocolate drinks, snacks, biscuits, candy, and nutritional supplements whether milk, white, dark, or semisweet. What they found is that in five of the seven studies, higher chocolate consumption was linked with a 37% reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduction in strokes.
Why Is Dark Chocolate Good for Your Heart?
With so many studies indicating the heart-healthy nature of dark chocolate, researchers have begun to identify the key reasons dark chocolate specifically benefits the heart. In particular, research has shown that dark chocolate:
- Contains polyphenol compounds called “procyanidins” that elicit a strong antioxidant effect
- Has a positive impact on blood platelet activity—similar to that of a baby aspirin
- Causes relaxation of the inner lining of blood vessels to help reduce blood pressure
- Promotes the formation of nitric oxide and improves blood circulation
Dark Chocolate Also Leads to a Sharper Mind & Better Mood
On top of all of dark chocolate’s heart health benefits, the sweet treat also appears to boost your brain power and your mood. A research study led by Professor Merrill Elias of the University of Maine analyzed data collected in the Maine Syracuse Longitudinal Study. The study included 968 participants, ages 29-98, who were free of dementia—and tracked their food consumption habits over a span of 30 years. Specifically, the researchers looked at the frequency of chocolate consumption, which the study participants classified as either "never," "rarely," "once a week," "two to four times a week," "five times a week," or "daily."
What they found is that those participants who ate chocolate at least once a week did better in cognitive function tasks than those who rarely, or never, consumed chocolate. They found that to be true regardless of the type of chocolate that was consumed. So, dark chocolate, milk chocolate, and white chocolate had the same beneficial effects on cognitive function. But as a cardiologist, I am partial to dark chocolate—the darker the better—because of its significantly higher polyphenol content.
Dark chocolate also contains a mood-boosting biochemical called phenylethylamine—the same chemical that causes the euphoric feeling we equate with love. It’s known that anti-aging drugs such as Eldepryl—which raises the neurotransmitter levodopa and is used in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease—increase phenylethylamine. Research has shown that dark chocolate might operate the same way.
Just Remember: A Little Heart-Healthy Dark Chocolate Goes a Long Way
Even with all of this favorable research concerning dark chocolate’s health benefits, it’s important to remember that chocolate can contain sugars, caffeine, and trans fatty acids—meaning it must be consumed in moderation. For maximum health benefits, you want to look for organic dark chocolate that contains at least 70% cacao. My personal chocolate stash includes resveratrol chocolate bars and organic dark chocolate bars. I allow myself to have a small piece every few days as a heart healthy treat.
The health benefits of chocolate, however, are not for everyone. The caffeine in chocolate can aggravate cardiac arrhythmias such as PAC’s, PVC’s, and atrial fibrillation, so I discourage chocolate for folks bothered by these disorders. And if you are diabetic, you must factor in the blood sugar problems that any sweet can cause and determine if chocolate is safe for you.