By Dr. Mercola
A recent meta-analysis sought to evaluate the association between chocolate consumption and the risk of developing cardiometabolic disorders. "Cardiometabolic disorders" is a term that represents a cluster of interrelated risk factors that promote the development of coronary heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
These risk factors include:
- Elevated fasting glucose
- High cholesterol levels
- Abdominal obesity
- Elevated triglycerides
In the featured analysis, researchers pooled the results of seven studies that collectively included more than 114,000 participants. Five of the seven studies reported a beneficial association between chocolate consumption and reduced risk of developing cardiometabolic disorders.
Bear in mind that not all chocolate is created equal. I'll review that in more detail below. As a general rule, any time "chocolate" is evaluated for its health benefits, we're dealing with dark unprocessed chocolate and/or raw cacao—not your average processed milk chocolate candy bar. That said, the featured analysis found that the highest levels of chocolate consumption were associated with:
- 37 percent reduction in cardiovascular disease, and
- 29 percent reduction in stroke
The authors concluded that:
"Based on observational evidence, levels of chocolate consumption seem to be associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders."
Chocolate, Good for Your Cardiovascular Health
This isn't the first time researchers have lauded dark chocolate as a heart-healthy choice. Five years ago, researchers discovered that small amounts of dark chocolate can cut your risk of heart attack because, like aspirin, chocolate has a biochemical effect that reduces the clumping of platelets, which cause blood to clot. Platelet clumping can be fatal if a clot forms and blocks a blood vessel, causing a heart attack.
Then, in 2008, researchers found that specially formulated raw cocoa powder has the potential to prevent cardiovascular disease in diabetics. Diabetic patients were given a special high-flavonol cocoa drink for one month, which brought their blood vessel function from severely impaired to normal. The improvement was actually as large as has been observed with exercise and many common diabetic medications.
More recently, researchers also discovered that a compound in dark chocolate, called epicatechin (a flavonoid), may protect your brain after a stroke by increasing cellular signals that shield nerve cells from damage. A stroke is similar to a heart attack, but occurs when the blood supply to your brain becomes blocked or reduced, as opposed to blocking the blood supply to your heart. This deprives your brain of necessary oxygen and nutrients, causing your brain cells to begin to die within minutes. Certain antioxidants such as epicatechins (which are also found in tea, red wine, and certain fruits and vegetables) may offer significant benefits to stroke victims.
In that study, the animals that ingested epicatechin 1.5 hours prior to an induced stroke suffered significantly less brain damage than the ones that had not been given the compound. It appears the antioxidant stimulates two pathways known to shield nerve cells in your brain from damage, so when the stroke hits, your brain is "on standby," if you will, ready to protect itself because these pathways are activated. According to the lead author, even a small amount of cacao may be sufficient to reap this protective health benefit!
Beware: Not All Chocolate is Created Equal
As mentioned at the beginning, these types of health benefits are mainly due to the high amounts of antioxidants present in pure cocoa, and any time you process the cocoa it loses its nutritional value. Hence, don't expect to get these kinds of results from regular chocolate candy. Few chocolates still contain the active ingredient. This means that the chocolate that offers the greatest health benefits is also the kind that few people find truly mouthwatering, as it is very bitter – NOT sweet.
According to a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, in terms of healthy antioxidant content, cocoa powder ranks first, followed by:
- Unsweetened baking chocolate
- Dark chocolate
- Semi-sweet chocolate
Milk chocolate should be avoided because in addition to being low in antioxidants it also contains milk, which further cancels out chocolate's antioxidant effects. And it's typically loaded with sugar, which does will do far more harm than good to your cardiovascular system. Another little-known concern about processed chocolate is lead contamination, which some suspect may be related to the processing.
To maximize your health advantages from dark chocolate, I recommend sticking to USDA Certified Organic chocolate. Interestingly enough, there appears to be a "Goldilocks Zone" when it comes to reaping health benefits from chocolate.
According to one study, just under 7 grams of dark chocolate per day (a bit less than half a bar a week) was found to be the ideal amount for a protective effect against inflammation and cardiovascular disease. Any more than that started to cancel out the benefits. Those who regularly ate the ideal amount of dark chocolate had an average of 17 percent reduction in C-reactive protein -- enough to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease by one-third in women and one-fourth in men.
Pure Cocoa Ranks High in Terms of Antioxidant Content
While flavonoids can be found in a variety of foods, some (such as the epicatechins just discussed) have stronger antioxidant properties than others. Raw cocoa powder ranks very high in terms of antioxidant properties and subsequent health benefits. For example, a 2003 study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that a cup of hot cocoa, using pure cocoa powder, had:
- Nearly double the amount of antioxidants than a glass of red wine
- More than double the amount of green tea, and
- Four to five times more than black tea
Your First Line of Defense = Living a Heart-Healthy Lifestyle
While chocolate-derived antioxidants may help protect against heart disease and stroke, and may even provide some benefit with glucose control in diabetics, you cannot depend on chocolate to do all the work... It doesn't work miracles in and of itself. As mentioned in the beginning, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes share many of the same risk factors.
Fortunately, following these simple guidelines will help you prevent all three.
- Optimize your insulin levels. If your fasting insulin level is above three, you'll want to strictly limit or eliminate your intake of fructose and grains until your insulin level has normalized. Following my nutritional plan will help you do this without much fuss.
- Optimize your vitamin D levels. Vitamin D can have a profound impact on normalizing blood pressure and lowering your risk for heart disease.
Your best source of vitamin D is through your skin being exposed to the sun, as your skin also synthesizes high amounts of vitamin D sulfate and cholesterol sulfate—both of which are very important for heart- and cardiovascular health. In fact, according to research by Dr. Stephanie Seneff, high LDL and subsequent heart disease may in fact be a symptom of cholesterol sulfate deficiency, and the now well-known benefits of vitamin D may actually be in large part due to the vitamin D sulfate... Furthermore, sulfur deficiency also promotes obesity and related health problems like diabetes, so all in all, the importance of getting regular sun exposure simply cannot be overstated!
Your second best option to raise your vitamin D levels is to use a safe tanning bed. And finally, another option is to supplement with high quality oral vitamin D3. According to the most recent findings by Carole Baggerly, founder of GrassrootsHealth, her research of nearly 10,000 people shows the ideal adult dose appears to be 8,000 IU's a day to get most into the healthy range. Just remember to get your vitamin D levels tested regularly if you decide to take an oral supplement.
- Exercise regularly
- Replace trans fats with healthful saturated fats
- Get plenty of animal-based omega-3 fats
- Get enough high-quality sleep every night
- Address daily stress and underlying emotional issues using effective and non-invasive energy psychology tools like the Emotional Freedom Technique