Can a cup of cocoa a day keep the heart doctor away? With as much as I love chocolate, I sure hope so.
The antioxidants in cocoa are especially beneficial for maintaining a healthy heart. Consuming more cocoa is associated with decreased blood pressure, improved blood vessel health and lower cholesterol, according to recent Harvard research.
Cocoa and other dark chocolate products are considered some of the most concentrated sources for flavonoids, says researcher Valentine Yanchou Njike, M.D., of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Connecticut. Flavonoids are naturally-occurring plant compounds that stimulate the body to make more nitric oxide, which relaxes the blood vessels, easing blood pressure and improving circulation.
Flavonoids in cocoa may help people maintain a healthy heart.
Photo by LibyBaySoap/Courtesy Flickr
This news may come at a perfect time. Almost 20 percent of people between the ages of 24 and 32 have high blood pressure, nearly five times the rate found in previous studies, according to new research at UNC-Chapel Hill. This is a chilling statistic because high blood pressure is a large contributing factor to heart disease, the leading cause of death for Americans.
Still, heart disease is not unavoidable. In fact, by changing your habits and lifestyle, coronary heart disease is preventable up to 80 percent of the time. The Mayo Clinic recommends five main things you can do to decrease your chance of heart disease:
1. Don’t smoke or use tobacco.
2. Exercise for at least 30 minutes a day.
3. Eat a heart-healthy diet.
4. Maintain a healthy weight.
5. Have regular health checks.
Cocoa is one of the most concentrated sources for flavonoids, but it is not the only source. There are other flavonoid-rich foods you can eat for a heart-healthy diet. Fruits that grow on trees are known to be high sources of flavonoids, including apples, plums, cherries, peaches, apricots and citrus fruits. Darker colored berries such as blueberries, cranberries, and blackberries are also an excellent source for flavonoids. Other good foods include nuts and beans, green and red vegetables, and certain herbs such as dill and thyme.
However, while cocoa itself may help you preserve your heart health, the same does not go for all chocolate. Flavonoids taste bitter and therefore often get destroyed during processing to make the chocolate taste better, says Norman Hollenberg, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Also, despite the fact that milk chocolate contains flavonoids, it also contains fat, which can lead to higher cholesterol levels. White chocolate does not contain any useful flavonoids at all. And although many products contain flavonoid-rich cocoa, a flavonoid-rich cocoa drink specifically for heart health doesn’t exist yet.
Scientists are still studying the effects of cocoa on the human body, but the results they’ve already found are promising. While this news does not mean you can consume all of the chocolate you want, it does mean that you don’t have to feel guilty about eating a few pieces of chocolate a week. Just try to choose dark chocolate with minimal added sugar or fat, or add a bit more unprocessed cocoa powder to your baking. Either way, one thing is for sure: I now have a good excuse to enjoy more chocolate, and I’m going to take advantage of it.
For recipe ideas with dark chocolate and cocoa powder, see Enlightened Chocolate, by Camilla V. Saulsburry