It Fights Dementia, Skin Cancer, Diabetes…
You may already know that dark chocolate is good for you, in particular for your heart. More than 300 scientific studies have established the power of dark chocolate to prevent and reverse heart disease. Dark chocolate is uniquely rich in cocoa flavanols—powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compounds such as epicatechin that are a nutritional tonic for arteries. Green tea, red wine, grapes, coffee and apples also are rich sources of flavanols—but ounce for ounce, dark chocolate contains more than any other food.
The regular intake of cocoa flavanols and other bioactive compounds in dark chocolate can douse artery-damaging inflammation…decrease the amount of calcified plaque that clogs arteries…reduce high blood pressure…boost good HDL cholesterol and reduce bad LDL cholesterol…help prevent heart attacks, strokes and heart failure…and even cut the risk of dying from heart disease in half.
Intrigued by the cardioprotective power of cocoa flavanols, scientists around the world have been investigating the healing potential of dark chocolate for a wide range of other conditions—and discovered it can fight these chronic health problems…
MEMORY LOSS AND DEMENTIA
Decreased blood flow to the brain is a well-known risk factor for dementia.
Good news: Consuming dark chocolate boosts blood flow to the brain, supplying brain cells (neurons) with more oxygen and glucose. And those well-nourished neurons also perform better. Studies show that ingesting flavanol-rich dark chocolate improves “working memory” (short-term memory used to process information) and attentiveness and decreases mental fatigue.
Recent developments: In a study from Harvard Medical School, one month of consuming dark chocolate improved brain blood flow and mental performance in older people (average age 73) who had poor blood flow to the brain and structural damage to the white matter of the brain, which relays messages between neurons.
In another study, dark chocolate improved the mental functioning of people with mild cognitive impairment—the stage of mental decline before dementia.
AGING SKIN AND SKIN CANCER
There’s now so much research on the link between cocoa flavanols and protection from skin aging that an international team of scientists—including the dermatology service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City—summarized it in a recent paper published in Nutrients.
One study found that ingesting dark chocolate for 12 weeks protected the skin from UV radiation (sunlight) and resulted in 25% less reddening. In a similar study, eating dark chocolate doubled the amount of time it took to start developing a sunburn. Dark chocolate also increased the flow of blood and oxygen to the skin, improving the appearance of the skin.
“Regular consumption of a chocolate rich in flavanols…can thus be effective at protecting human skin from harmful UV effects,” including skin cancer, the researchers concluded.
CHRONIC FATIGUE SYNDROME
In this condition—suffered by more than one million Americans—you have severe, unrelenting fatigue, particularly after physical or mental exertion. Chronic fatigue syndrome often is accompanied by symptoms such as insomnia, poor concentration, depression and muscle pain.
Startling finding: In a study published in Nutrition Journal, 10 middle-aged people with chronic fatigue syndrome ate high-flavanol dark chocolate for eight weeks. The participants experienced 35% less fatigue and were less depressed and anxious. But when they ate a low-flavanol placebo chocolate bar every day for eight weeks, their fatigue and other symptoms quickly returned.
Two people in the study returned to work after years of not being able to function productively. Not surprisingly, after the study was over, they continued eating dark chocolate every day.
TYPE 2 DIABETES
About 29 million Americans, including one in four people over the age of 65, have diabetes, or chronically high blood sugar—a disease that raises the risk of dying from heart disease by 70%. Long-term complications can include kidney failure and blindness. Studies show that chocolate can prevent diabetes and help prevent complications in those who have the disease.
In a recent study of nearly 8,000 people published in Clinical Nutrition, those who ate one ounce of chocolate two to six times weekly had a 34% lower risk of being diagnosed with diabetes than people who ate chocolate less than once a month.
Prevention of diabetic complications: In a study of 93 postmenopausal women with type 2 diabetes published in Diabetes Care, those women who ate flavanol-rich chocolate every day for one year not only had better blood sugar control—they also had 11 times lower risk of developing heart disease, compared with women who ate low-flavanol chocolate.
More research: Cellular and animal studies show that cocoa flavanols can protect the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas (insulin is the hormone that ushers blood sugar out of the bloodstream and into cells)…the kidneys (diabetes is the cause of nearly half of all cases of kidney failure)…and the retina (nearly 30% of people with diabetes have diabetic retinopathy, a cause of vision loss and blindness).
Air pollution has been linked to heart disease, lung disease and the type of brain inflammation that can lead to Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Dark chocolate may be a breath of fresh air.
Startling new findings: The air in Mexico City ranks among the most polluted in the world. But when 18 people living in Mexico City consumed a dark chocolate drink every day for one to three weeks, they had lower levels of plasma endothelin, a biomarker for the inflammatory impact of pollution.
WHICH CHOCOLATE IS BEST?
Nearly every client in my health-coaching practice gets a recommendation to consume a daily dose of about 400 milligrams (mg) of cocoa flavanols—the amount used in many of the studies that show a therapeutic effect. Important: Higher doses don’t produce better results.
And the healthiest way to get those flavanols is with unsweetened cocoa powder that delivers all the flavanols of dark chocolate without burdening your daily diet with extra calories and sugar. (Using cocoa powder also helps you control your intake—it’s notoriously easy to consume an entire three-ounce bar of chocolate even though your optimal daily “dose” is only one ounce.)
Red flag: Do not use “Dutch” cocoa powder, which is treated with an alkalizing agent for a richer color and milder taste—a process that strips cocoa of 98% of its epicatechin.
My advice: Mix one tablespoon of unsweetened cocoa powder in an eight-to-12-ounce mug of hot water or milk (nondairy milks such as coconut, almond, soy and rice milk are delicious alternatives) and add a no-calorie natural sweetener, such as stevia.
Good products: I recommend CocoaVia, the powder developed by Mars, Incoporated. The Mars Center for Cocoa Health Science has conducted extensive scientific research on cocoa flavanols for two decades, and one “stick” of its powder reliably delivers 375 mg of cocoa flavanols, standardized for epicatechin. You can mix it with cold or warm milk, coffee drinks, smoothies, yogurt or oatmeal. Another high-quality cocoa powder is CocoaWell from Reservage. (Note: CocoaVia does process its product with alkali, but it is not a concern because the powder is reliably standardized to deliver a high, therapeutic dose of cocoa flavanols.)
Dark chocolate bars don’t reliably deliver a therapeutic dose of cocoa flavanols. But if you prefer to eat dark chocolate, look for a bar with 70% or more cocoa, and consume about one ounce (28 grams) per day. According to a report from ConsumerLab.com, dark chocolate brands with high levels of flavanols (about one-quarter to one-half the amount in the best brands of cocoa powder) include Endangered Species, Ghirardelli and Lindt.