At this time of the year, seasonal sugarplums can take the shape of everything from chocolate reindeer to chocolate dreidels to chocolate Yule logs. Your primary care physicians at The Medical Group of South Florida in Jupiter, Florida, don’t mind your indulging your chocolate sweet tooth occasionally, especially over the holidays, with some caveats.
Many recent studies have given chocolate something of a reprieve from its past bad press. It turns out that the right kind of chocolate consumed in moderation might benefit everything from the cardiovascular system to cognitive improvement. Some have even attributed chocolate consumption to a reduced risk of cancer and a lower risk of diabetes.
One study at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, for example, found that blood platelets clotted more slowly in subjects who had consumed chocolate. This can help prevent clots—and thus, heart attacks and strokes—from occurring. Another study published in the journal BMJ suggested that chocolate consumption could lower the risk of developing heart disease by as much as a third.
“Based on observational evidence, levels of chocolate consumption seem to be associated with a substantial reduction in the risk of cardiometabolic disorders,” they wrote in a paper presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Paris.
A Canadian study of 44,489 subjects found that those who regularly consumed chocolate were 22% less likely to suffer a stroke than those who abstained, and that those who did have a stroke were 46% less likely to die as a result.
Other benefits attributed to chocolate (usually the result of small studies) include improved cognitive function, enhanced athletic performance, benefits to fetal growth and development, and lower cholesterol.
“(Chocolate) is a good antioxidant,” Dr. Owais Khawaja, a cardiology fellow at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, told CNN. “We think most of the beneficial effects are because of this.” Antioxidants are known to reduce the amount of free radicals in the body, those compounds known to cause cellular damage.
Compounds called flavonoids, present in chocolate as well as wine, beer, tea, berries, fruits, and vegetables, are thought to be responsible for chocolate’s healthful benefits. Flavonoids are believed to reduce inflammation throughout the body.
This is not, however, unlimited permission to consume every chocolate Santa in sight. As we said, moderation is key, and the right kind of chocolate makes all the difference.
One reason chocolate has received its bad reputation is because of all the sugar it usually contains. This leads to heart disease, obesity, tooth decay, and myriad health problems.
The more nonfat cocoa solids chocolate consists of, the more antioxidants it contains. Steer clear of chocolate products with added fats such as “milk fats,” or “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.” These will tend to cancel out the beneficial effects of chocolate. (And if you’re sensitive to caffeine, you should know that the darker the chocolate, the more caffeine it contains.)
Here’s a good rule of thumb:
The closer you can get to the original cocoa, the better. So natural cocoa powder is best (though it tends to be bitter); dark chocolate and semi-sweet chocolate chips are better. Milk chocolate is the least desirable, because milk proteins are thought to bind to the flavonoids and make them unavailable to the body. White “chocolate” contains no cocoa solids at all.
One tip: a type of chocolate known as Dutch chocolate has undergone a process that removes all the flavonoids, so its health benefits are suspect.
Your doctors at MGSFL wish you healthy, happy holidays that can include a moderate amount of chocolate: up to 1.6 ounces of dark chocolate a day. Just try to limit the intake of additional sugars and fats along with your treat if possible.