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Dark chocolate for heart month

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 11:21 a.m. CST • Updated: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 12:09 p.m. CST

Regular chocolate eaters have a lower risk of death from heart disease or any other cause. What’s behind that sweet reward? Chocolate contains flavonoids, the same substances we hear about in red wine and green tea. These substances may help protect against heart disease. Dark chocolate is higher in flavonoids than other forms of chocolate and has a slightly bitter flavor. The following are potential benefits from consuming dark chocolate in moderation:

• Lower blood pressure. Eating just a quarter-ounce a day of dark chocolate decreases blood pressure by a modest amount.

• Better blood flow. The polyphenols in cocoa may reduce platelet activation, reducing the risk for harmful clots.

• Improved mood. Cocoa has a stress-reducing mix of compounds-some energizing and others relaxing which can improve mood and pleasure by boosting serotonin and endorphin levels in the brain.

Be aware that milk chocolate is not as heart healthy as dark chocolate. It contains more fat and sugar and less cocoa and antioxidants. White chocolate, which is actually not chocolate at all, is a mix of fat, milk and sugar.

Don’t replace healthier foods with chocolate, but do make dark chocolate (the higher the percentage of cocoa, the better) your sweet of choice. Limit yourself to about an ounce a day.

Remember that calories still count! Eaten as part of an overall healthy diet, chocolate may be heart healthy and can add an extra sparkle to the end of a meal. Eating chocolate need not be a guilty pleasure — moderation is the key. As writer Samuel Butler said, “Half the vices which the world condemns most loudly have seeds of good in them and require moderate use rather than total abstinence.”

Cocoa contains small amounts of caffeine and large amounts of theobromine, another alkaloid in the xanthine family. Theobromine is classified as a mild central nervous system stimulant and has physiological effects similar to those of caffeine, but much weaker. The average cup of hot cocoa contains about 10 mg of caffeine but more than 200 mg of theobromine. A 3 1⁄2 ounce chocolate bar contains approximately 12 mg of caffeine and 155 mg of theobromine. To compare a 12-ounce can of soda contains 35 to 55mg of caffeine, one cup of tea has 15 to 35 mg and one cup of coffee 65 to 175mg of caffeine.

So enjoy an ounce of dark chocolate and know you are doing yourself some good.

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