Chocolate could help protect the heart
So the last few posts have confirmed our ideas that chocolate can be pretty bad for us – rich in fat and sugar, potentially addictive and gives us a headache……………so what about the good stuff? What benefits can we get from eating chocolate that will help justify us eating that giant Easter egg all in one go…………….I am scoffing on some Ferrero Rocher my mum gave me as I write this, so I can’t comment…………….although I am doing it to help her out…………….so she doesn’t eat them all – aren’t I good 😉
Chocolate is rich in antioxidants – these are amazing little molecules that prevent…… …wait for it……..oxidation. So what exactly does that mean? To avoid getting into too much chemistry, oxidation can be harmful; it causes ‘oxidative stress’ as it generates little guys called free radicals and these can damage cells and ultimately kill them. We know that free radicals are responsible for some of the age related changes we experience like wrinkles and oxidative stress seems to play a significant role in other diseases like cancer. There are loads of different antioxidants in the food we eat, like Vitamins A, C and E in fruit and vegetables. As antioxidants provide protection and potentially slow the signs of aging, it’s one of the reasons they are included in face creams and body moisturizers.
Chocolate however, is particularly rich in a group of antioxidants called polyphenols. You might have heard of some of these polyphenols as they have been extensively studied in black tea, green tea and wine – the ones I am referring to in chocolate are called flavonoids.
If you look at the flavonoid content of the different types of chocolate, the dark stuff comes out on top again.
Flavonoid content (mg/100g)
Dark chocolate 28
Milk Chocolate 13
White Chocolate 8
Flavonoids may protect the heart through a number of actions:
- Defends against oxidative stress and cell damage
- Improves blood vessel (endothelial)* function and health
- Reduces the risk of blood clots (by reducing platelet activity – platelets are small cells in our blood that make it clot; this is usually a good thing, in response to injury but when our blood clots too easily and in the wrong places, it can be dangerous. Blood flow can be obstructed, depriving parts of the body from oxygen and potentially causing a heart attack or stroke)
- Improves cholesterol levels
- Reduces blood pressure
Ultimately, the above 5 factors combined, all work towards reducing the risk of heart disease
*If you would like to know what the endothelium is, it is a single layer of cells that covers the internal surface of blood vessels, the heart, and numerous body cavities. One of the jobs of the endothelium is to “sense” changes in the blood flow and “respond” by releasing chemicals to keep things in balance.
If the endothelium becomes damaged in any way (e.g. by oxidative stress) this balance is disrupted which can cause changes in the vessels themselves; things like inflammation of the vessel wall, constriction of the wall making the vessel narrow, formation of blood clots and atherosclerosis (the deposition of cholesterol in the vessel wall that also reduces the blood flow).
Recent evidence has shown that flavonoids in chocolate can actually cause blood vessels to relax and open up, increasing the blood flow in them. Ultimately this improves the health of our vessels, reduces the work load on the heart and subsequently lowers the risk for heart disease.
Fat could help lower our risk of a heart attack?!
The type of fat found in the cocoa bean is also an interesting one. We must remember that not all fat is bad; there are good fats as well. Chocolate contains a decent amount of oleic acid which is a healthy monounsaturated fat – the type of fat we find in olive oil which also provides cardioprotective effects. These good fats have been shown to help lower our levels of ‘bad cholesterol’ (LDL or low density lipoprotein) and raise our levels of ‘good cholesterol’ (HDL or high density lipoproteins). A study in 2004 reported that long term consumption of dark chocolate increased HDL levels by 11%! Another study in 2009 found that survivors of heart attacks who ate chocolate at least two or three times a week reduced their risk of death by a factor of 3 times compared to survivors who did not eat chocolate.
Chocolate may have even more benefits than teas and red wine because of greater amounts of flavonoids it contains and therefore a higher antioxidant capacity (……blog on tea at some point later)
It will have to be dark chocolate to get these benefits though, Cadbury’s mini eggs just won’t do it I’m afraid (and preferably not dark chocolate with the ooey gooey, caramel or praline centres – the sugar and fat in these ones will just counteract the good stuff (sorry 😦 )
And sorry to end on a negative note but you can’t use dark chocolate to make up for other unhealthy aspects of your lifestyle – dark chocolate will not compensate for things like a high fat diet, too much salt or sugar, drinking alcohol to excess, lack of physical activity or the effects of stress. Consuming large quantities of dark chocolate in an attempt to protect against cardiovascular disease would be like ‘cutting off your nose to spite your face’ ……..but it might just make you feel a little better anyway 🙂