Go ahead and indulge in this traditional Valentine’s treat
This month, romantics everywhere will be flooding the stores looking for a box of chocolates for someone special in their lives.
But I encourage everyone to indulge in this rich treat… not only in February, but year-round.
Because this “dietary vice” is actually a virtue in disguise.
In fact, chocolate is one of the healthiest foods around—especially for your cardiovascular system. It’s highly nutritious, contains a powerful source of antioxidants, and could even be powerful enough to save your life…
Strengthen your arteries against stress
Researchers from the University of Birmingham recently explored how cocoa flavanols affect stress-related changes to vascular function.
(Flavanols are the natural compounds that lend fruits, vegetables, teas, and chocolate their color. And those of us on the natural side of medicine have been touting their health benefits for as long as I can remember.)
As part of their experiment, researchers gave healthy men a high-flavanol cocoa drink 90 minutes before administering an eight-minute-long stress task. They also measured subjects’ circulation and cardiovascular activity both at rest and under stress for up to 90 minutes after the stress task.
Ultimately, high-flavanol cocoa reduced impairment to blood vessel function among subjects who drank it.1 The flavanols also increased blood flow during stress—a pretty vital benefit.
After all, mental stress can elevate heart rate, blood pressure, and can cause short-term impairments in artery function. All of which can prove disastrous. In fact, another recent study found that emotional upset raises risk of stroke as much as 30 percent in the hour following a stressful event.2
But you may be able to reverse these lethal effects simply by sipping a cup of cocoa. (I can hardly think of a sweeter way to finish a long, stressful winter day!)
Daily cocoa keeps you moving
Of course, stroke isn’t the only vascular condition you can fight with chocolate. In fact, other research has found that flavanol-rich cocoa can also help walking performance in patients with peripheral artery disease (PAD).
In a nutshell, PAD restricts the arteries leading to your limbs—blocking nutrients, oxygen, and blood flow. It’s not quite the urgent health crisis that coronary artery disease is—when blood flow is blocked to your heart—but it still comes with its own set of life-altering complications.
One of the most notorious symptoms of PAD is leg pain and cramping (or “intermittent claudication”). Even a short stroll around the block can cause symptoms, and it can be downright crippling. So this news couldn’t get any better…
For this study, participants randomly received either a cocoa beverage or a placebo beverage three times a day for six months. Researchers found that the patients who drank the cocoa enjoyed significant improvements in six-minute walk distance compared to the placebo group, by about 150 feet.
They also found improvement in circulation to the legs and improved mitochondrial function in the calf muscles of patients who drank the cocoa beverage.3 In other words, chocolate could help control those debilitating symptoms of PAD.
But that’s still not all. Another critical benefit of that ample boost in blood flow relates to your brain health…
Boost your brainpower
Yet another small but compelling study appeared recently in the journal Scientific Reports. Researchers recruited 18 healthy, non-smoking adults with no existing brain, cardiovascular, or respiratory disease.
The goal was to investigate how cocoa flavanols impact circulation to the brain—and in turn, how that affects cognitive performance.
The study consisted of two different trials—one in which participants consumed flavanol-rich cocoa, and one in which they consumed processed cocoa with little–to–no flavanols. This was a double-blind study, so neither the participants nor the researchers knew which type of cocoa the subjects received.
About two hours after drinking the cocoa, researchers assessed blood and oxygen flow to the brain—and more specifically, to the frontal cortex, which is critical to planning, behavior regulation, and decision-making. The researchers also administered challenges to analyze how participants handled complex cognitive tasks.
Unsurprisingly, most of the subjects showed stronger and faster oxygen uptake in their brains after consuming the flavanol-rich cocoa—more than three times higher and a full minute faster, in fact.4
But that’s not all. When subjects drank the flavanol-rich cocoa, they also performed better on the hardest cognitive tests—solving the administered challenges 11 percent faster than they did at baseline, or when they drank the processed cocoa.
The connection between good health and chocolate is no coincidence
These are just a few of the most recent studies on the astounding health benefits of cocoa. But as you may recall, chocolate has been one of my favorite topics since I first read about a study on the Kuna Indians of Panama years ago.
These indigenous people live on an island off the coast of Panama. And they don’t have heart disease. But researchers found that when they moved to the mainland, they suffered the same level of heart disease as any other Panamanian.
Why? Well, the Kuna who live on the island eat a traditional diet, which happens to be very rich in cocoa. And as research has proven time and again, the connection between cocoa and heart health is no coincidence.
But there is one catch: Not just any chocolate fits the bill for any of the benefits outlined here today. And no, a cup of Swiss Miss hot cocoa is not going to do your heart any favors—and neither is a big heart-shaped box of truffles or sugar-laden milk chocolates.
So let’s go over some important caveats before Valentine’s Day, and before you start stocking up on your next shopping trip…
The darker, the better
First and foremost, researchers in the above studies did not use milk chocolate. They used pure, dark cocoa.
Of course, I’m always urging you to buy as pure and unadulterated a product as possible, too. Because when you add in sugar and fat to make cocoa taste better, it comes at the expense of the flavanols you’re pushing out.
And those flavanols—like epicatechin, for example—are what make chocolate medicinal with daily consumption. So, always opt for dark chocolate that contains at least 85 percent cocoa.
Or you could do what I do: Mix some really dark and bitter cocoa powder—100 percent is best—with some water or coconut milk. Heat it up, and then once it’s fully combined, remove it from the heat and add a bit of stevia or monk fruit for sweetness.
Drink it hot or cold—whichever you prefer. (Though in weather like this, I can tell you which one I’m choosing!) Either way, your entire circulatory system will be a whole lot healthier for it.
- Baynham R, et al. “Cocoa Flavanols Improve Vascular Responses to Acute Mental Stress in Young Healthy Adults.” Nutrients, 2021; 13 (4): 1103 DOI: 10.3390/nu13041103
- Smyth A, et al. “Anger or emotional upset and heavy physical exertion as triggers of stroke: the INTERSTROKE study.” European Heart Journal, 2021; DOI: 10.1093/eurheartj/ehab738
- McDermott MM, et al. “Cocoa to Improve Walking Performance in Older People With Peripheral Artery Disease: The COCOA-PAD Pilot Randomized Clinical Trial.” Circ Res. 2020 Feb 28;126(5):589-599.
- Gratton G, et al. “Dietary flavanols improve cerebral cortical oxygenation and cognition in healthy adults.” Scientific Reports, 2020; 10 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-76160-9