Chocolate is usually treated like a guilty pleasure. It’s easy to go overboard on this sweet treat, which has led some people to swear it off altogether. But despite the fat and sugar content, chocolate deserves a spot in everyone’s diet. Cocoa beans, the main ingredient, are packed with phytonutrients that offer many health benefits.
There are plenty of ways to make chocolate a healthy treat. You can nibble on a chocolate bar or get creative by adding a chocolatey powder supplement to your smoothies. The type of chocolate you eat is what’s most important. Chocolate’s health benefits are associated with organic, minimally processed dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao. Dark chocolate is usually considered the healthiest chocolate thanks to its higher cacao content.
Here are the top health benefits found in moderate amounts of dark chocolate.
- Reduced risk of chronic health issues: Dark chocolate is very high in antioxidants that protect cells from damage. In fact, this sweet treat has higher levels than some antioxidant-rich whole foods such as blueberries! The compounds in chocolate that have antioxidant properties include catechins, polyphenols and flavanols. Antioxidants combat oxidative stress, a state of being that makes it difficult for cells to carry out their jobs. A diet high in antioxidants is associated with a lower risk of chronic cardiovascular and cognitive problems.
- Support healthy blood pressure: Dark chocolate contains a type of flavanol called epicatechin. This compound signals the arteries to increase nitric oxide production. Nitric oxide helps the arteries relax, which in turn improves circulation and supports healthy blood pressure. The epicatechin in dark chocolate is especially beneficial for people with high blood pressure, as epicatechin can help it return to a healthy level.
- Good balance of cholesterol: Dark chocolate can reduce low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. LDL is known as “bad” cholesterol because it accumulates in the arteries rather than getting filtered through the liver. In addition to lowering LDL, the antioxidants in dark chocolate prevent LDL from oxidizing. This prevents oxidative LDL from damaging the arteries and heart. Dark chocolate can also increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is known as “good” cholesterol. HDL carries cholesterol to the liver for proper disposal.
- Healthy blood sugar levels: Cacao beans improve the body’s ability to metabolize glucose for energy. This key ingredient in chocolate lowers insulin resistance, making it easier for cells to absorb glucose from the bloodstream. Proper insulin levels stabilize blood sugar and reduce the risk for chronic health conditions. Dark chocolate is also known for reducing oxidative stress, which is a risk factor for insulin resistance. However, this treat is best enjoyed in moderation, since too much can raise your blood sugar instead of lowering it.
- Better performance in the gym: People who love to exercise might steer clear of chocolate due to its fat and sugar content. However, small amounts of chocolate with 70 percent cacao or higher can actually boost your performance during a workout. Epicatechin relaxes the arteries and increases blood circulation. This flavanol helps the body use oxygen more efficiently, which means you need less of it to power through a sweat session. When eaten on a regular basis, dark chocolate can increase muscle endurance and help you run longer distances.
- Improved brain health: Chocolate has health benefits for both the body and mind. Chocolate assists with cognitive function because flavonoids are most active in the areas that control memory and learning. For this reason, chocolate could potentially slow the progression of cognitive disorders. The flavanols in dark chocolate keep your mind sharp well into your later years. Dark chocolate also contains trace amounts of caffeine to boost energy levels and improve focus.
- Stress relief: Chocolate can make you happier, and that’s not just because it tastes good! People who regularly eat dark chocolate have lower levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. Low cortisol levels are associated with stress relief. Cacao activates parts of the brain responsible for pleasure, so a small bite of dark chocolate can lift your spirits. The treat can further improve your mood by forming stronger synaptic connections in the brain.
- Protection against sun damage: Dark chocolate even has the ability to protect your skin from the sun. Flavanols drastically increase your minimal erythemal dose (MED), which indicates how much sunlight is necessary to cause skin damage. People with a high MED are less likely to get sunburn, wrinkles, sagging and dark spots. The flavanols in dark chocolate protect your skin by improving blood flow and boosting hydration.
You don’t have to cut chocolate from your diet completely. Eating the right amount can offer various health benefits for the mind and body. Whether you want to focus on your skin, heart or athletic performance, chocolate has a little something for everyone in addition to its indulgent taste. Go ahead and treat yourself!