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Believe it or not, one of the best prescriptions for a healthy heart can be found at the candy counter. Researchers have confirmed that consuming a small amount of dark chocolate every day provides key cardiovascular benefits that can reduce "bad" cholesterol and prevent hypertension.
An article published in Hypertension: A Journal of the American Heart Association said that studies have shown that "flavonoids from cocoa products provide some cardiovascular benefit as a part of a healthy diet for people with essential hypertension."
Articles in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition and other publications tout chocolate's positive effects on endothelial function and its ability to raise "good" cholesterol.
Researchers have also linked dark chocolate to a reduced risk of cancer and several studies have shown that dark chocolate may improve cognitive function by increasing blood flow to the brain.
As noted in the Hypertension article, chocolate derives its health-boosting power from flavonoids, which are powerful antioxidants that are also found in green tea, red wine and many fruits and vegetables. Dark chocolate also contains small amounts of other health-boosting nutrients including magnesium, potassium, calcium and iron.
Before you rush out to "fill your chocolate prescription" it is important to understand that all chocolate is not created equal. Many types of chocolate have added ingredients that raise the calorie and fat content. Most of the chocolate that is manufactured in the United States contains high amounts of sugar and milk. Adding dairy products to chocolate interferes with antioxidant absorption. White chocolate contains no antioxidants at all.
Dark chocolate is produced when cocoa beans are processed into cocoa solids, which is where the health-boosting antioxidants are located. The higher the percentage of cocoa, the better. Choose dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa and that contains cocoa butter instead of milk.
So, if a little is good, more is better? Not in this case. Bear in mind that, even though it is an antioxidant powerhouse, dark chocolate is a high-calorie food and a little bit goes a long way. Health experts agree that the ideal amount is 1.6 ounces of dark chocolate per day. Consuming more than that amount will add excess calories to your daily diet that could cancel out the healthy benefits the chocolate has to offer.
Dark chocolate is by no means a substitute for the fruits and vegetables that are vital for a healthy diet, but it can be incorporated as one element of your "stay-well" regimen. Find creative ways to include this delicious, healthful treat in your daily routine. It's a win-win for your taste buds and your cardiovascular system.