Is Chocolate Healthy?

Chocolate is one of my favorite treats. I keep a bag of dark chocolate squares in my office at all times. As a doctor, I try to eat a healthy diet. Is my indulgence in chocolate part of healthy eating?

There have been many published studies on the health benefits and drawbacks of eating chocolate. My conclusion after reading the studies: A small amount of dark chocolate can be part of a healthy diet – a diet that is focused on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins. Here are five things to know about chocolate and your health:

1. Dark chocolate is considered healthier than white chocolate or milk chocolate. Dark chocolate has less added sugar and lower amounts of saturated fats compared with other types of chocolate. Dark chocolate, which has very little if any milk, contains about 50 percent to 90 percent cocoa solids. As the percentage of cocoa solids increases, so, too, does the amount of flavonoids. Flavonoids are an antioxidant – antioxidants are nutrients that help minimize free-radical damage in the body. (Free radicals may play a role in many health conditions, including cancer and heart problems.)

2. The antioxidants in dark chocolate can improve your immune system and help prevent against viral and bacterial infections. Antioxidants also protect the body from inflammation.

3. Studies have shown a correlation between eating flavonoids and lower blood pressure and improved blood circulation to the heart. Good blood flow to the heart reduces the risk of stroke and heart disease. But don’t overdo it: Dark chocolate does contain saturated fat, which can contribute to heart problems.

4. Studies also have shown a correlation between eating dark chocolate and increased insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity helps people prevent and control diabetes. Diabetes is connected with a host of health problems, including chronic kidney disease, nerve damage and eye problems.

5. Eating dark chocolatemay improve mood. In one study, those who consumed dark chocolate with 85 percent cocoa had a better mood than those who ate chocolate with a lower cocoa content. The study authors wrote: “These results suggest that intake of dark chocolate with a higher cocoa content has a positive influence on negative emotional states.” Many people feel a connection between eating chocolate and a feeling of euphoria.

6. Eating dark chocolate may help your brain. One study, for example, showed a link between eating dark chocolate and improved cognitive processing, learning, memory and recall.

But before you go ahead and eat a whole dark chocolate candy bar in one sitting, keep in mind that dark chocolate contains a lot of saturated fat and calories. Though the sugar content may be lower than other types of chocolate, dark chocolate still has a lot of added sugars.

Also of note: Consumer Reports recently tested the amount of heavy metals in 28 dark chocolate bars and detected cadmium and lead in all of them. These metals can be especially dangerous to children and pregnant women.

Dark chocolate does contain small amounts of calcium, potassium, iron and other minerals, but don’t look to chocolate as a substitute for getting these vitamins and minerals from other sources, such as fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.

The bottom line? Eating approximately 30 grams of dark chocolate a day may have some health benefits when part of an overall healthy diet. So eating the whole candy bar may not be a healthy choice, but having a square of dark chocolate after a healthy meal can satisfy your sweet tooth, boost your mood and perhaps contribute to a healthier heart, brain and immune system.