More vegetables, less sweets: That’s the way to a healthier body, right?

While this thinking holds true, you may want to make an exception for dark chocolate.

Dark chocolate is made with cocoa powder harvested from the seed of the cacao tree. Cocoa has proven health benefits, many of which stem from its abundance of polyphenols, namely flavonoids.

Polyphenols are micronutrients that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They’ve even been linked to the prevention of degenerative illnesses like cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Flavonoids are a type of antioxidant that help protect the body from damage by free radicals. These are molecules formed from both your own metabolism and environmental factors that can alter or weaken cells. The main type of flavonoid in cocoa and chocolate is flavanols. Dark chocolate contains more cocoa, and thus more flavanols, than milk chocolate.

So, how exactly is dark chocolate good for you?

Improves Cardiovascular Health

A study in the journal Heart found that regular chocolate eaters had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and strokes compared to people who didn’t eat chocolate. Flavanols specifically are thought to improve several aspects of cardiovascular health.

Research suggests that the flavanols in cocoa powder and dark chocolate can improve your cholesterol. LDL, or bad cholesterol, becomes more harmful when damaged by free radicals. Free radicals cause oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which is thought to play a vital role in the hardening of arteries (atherosclerosis). Flavanols have been shown to decrease this LDL oxidation.

Research also suggests that flavanols increase the production of nitric oxide gas in your body. Nitric oxide causes the blood vessel walls to relax, which improves blood flow and reduces blood pressure.

Additionally, cocoa flavanols are shown to suppress the tendency for platelets to clump together and form blood clots.

Protects Skin

Cocoa rich in flavanols has also been shown to firm and protect skin by increasing blood flow and hydration.

It’s been linked to enabling photoprotection mechanisms as well, which help the body deal with molecular damage from sunlight. So, dark chocolate can be effective at protecting skin from harmful UV effects, too.

Improves Brain Function

Two studies in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggest that regular consumption of cocoa flavanols increases cognitive function in older adults.

In one study, 90 healthy adults ages 61 to 85 with good memory and thinking skills were given a drink with low, medium, or high levels of cocoa flavanols. After eight weeks, those who consumed medium and high amounts of cocoa flavanols every day made significant improvements on tests that measured attention, executive function, and memory.

Another study provided evidence suggesting that regular cocoa flavanol consumption could benefit older adults with memory and thinking problems as well, possibly through an improvement in insulin sensitivity.

Boosts Mood

No wonder you feel a pep in your step after a chocolate treat.

Dark chocolate stimulates the release of endorphins, which then causes serotonin to be released. An increase of both endorphins and serotonin improves mood and pleasure.

Provides Vital Nutrients

Dark chocolate is high in fiber and minerals. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a 1.5-ounce serving of 70-85 percent dark chocolate has 4.6 grams of fiber, 31 milligrams of calcium, 5 milligrams of iron, 97 milligrams of magnesium, and 304 milligrams of potassium. Some dark chocolate brands contain even higher amounts of iron.

The Takeaway

Cocoa flavanols found in dark chocolate are associated with a handful of health benefits. To ensure that you’re optimizing these good-for-you qualities, consider a few things: High-quality dark chocolate contains at least 70 percent cocoa solids. It’s dark brown in color and glossy. The darker, the better. Dark chocolate contains more flavonoids than milk chocolate. White chocolate contains no cocoa solids and thus is not a source of flavonoids at all.

Also, don’t forget that dark chocolate is still high in fat and sugar. Research suggests that you only need a 1.5-ounce serving per day to benefit. It’s best to replace sweets you already consume with dark chocolate to avoid consuming extra calories.

Try some healthier recipes incorporating dark chocolate, like this dark chocolate and coconut dessert sauce or these dark chocolate vegan desserts for a creative, and delicious, way to get your daily dose of cocoa flavanols. 

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