Amazing, but true: Dark chocolate can add years to men’s lives, by reducing their risk for a heart attack or stroke. Eating the sweet treat in moderate amounts provides even more powerful cardiovascular protection for men than it does for women, according to a new study published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research.
Scottish scientists analyzed the effects of dark chocolate fortified with extra cocoa on platelets, blood components that help stop bleeding. Overly active platelets can clump into artery-blocking clots, potentially leading to a heart attack or stroke, so platelet function is an important measure of cardiovascular health.
To find out more about how dark chocolate keeps men’s hearts happy and healthy, I talked to Tana Amen, BSN, RN, author of The Omni Diet: The Revolutionary Plan to Lose Weight, Reverse Disease, Fight Inflammation and Change Your Life Forever.
In the study, healthy volunteers were randomly assigned to eat one of three types of chocolate: dark chocolate enriched with extra flavan-3-ols (antioxidant compounds found in cocoa), standard dark chocolate, or white chocolate after a 10-hour fast. Blood and urine tests were conducted two hours before and six hours after eating the candy.
The results revealed an interesting difference between men and women. Guys who ate the enriched dark chocolate had a significant decrease in both platelet activation and aggregation, compared to people who ate standard chocolate. Activation is a reversible process in which platelets start to get stickier, while aggregation occurs when the platelets clump together, which could lead to clots.
In women, eating the fortified chocolate only reduced aggregation. In both sexes, bleeding time increased after eating the enriched chocolate, suggesting that it had a blood-thinning effect. The researchers concluded that dark chocolate that’s high in flavan-3-ols has a positive effect on platelet function in both sexes, but the benefits are greater in men.
The study builds on previous research showing that dark chocolate and cocoa have a wide range of cardiovascular benefits, says Amen. “Dark chocolate is one of the best foods for the heart and the brain, because it lowers bad cholesterol, raises good cholesterol, and improves blood pressure.”
Since high blood pressure is the leading risk factor for stroke, it’s not surprising that a 2012 study of more than 37,000 men found that those who ate the most chocolate had the lowest rate of stroke. Over a ten-year period, men with high consumption of the tasty treat had a 19 percent lower risk of stroke, compared to those who ate the least chocolate.
The cacao bean contains more than 400 compounds that could influence health, but research suggests that flavanols account for many of the heart-protective effects of chocolate and cocoa. One less-known benefit is its effect on the endothelium, the inner lining of the blood vessels, sometimes called “the brain of the arteries.”
“Chocolate is known to boost nitric oxide (produced by the endothelium), which in turn increases vasodilation, so vessels relax and widen, sending more blood to the heart and brain,” says Amen. “Nitric oxide is the most nutritious ‘food’ for the arteries and a major contributor to heart and brain health.” (Nitric oxide is not related to nitrous oxide, the “laughing gas” used in dentistry.)
Studies show that dark chocolate enhances endothelial function in healthy people, while flavonoid-rich cocoa may even help reverse the endothelial dysfunction caused by smoking (after the person kicks the habit), according to Harvard Medical School. In addition, dark chocolate may improve coronary artery function in heart transplant patients.
However, before you wolf down a huge chocolate bar for the good of your heart, consider this: Studies have consistently found that it just takes a little square a day (about one-third of an ounce) to keep the heart and brain healthy. Eating large amounts could pack on extra pounds, since chocolate is high in fat and calories.
Amen advises choosing chocolate that is at least 70 percent cocoa. “Look for extra dark chocolate that is dairy-free and low in sugar to get the most benefit,” she says. Also consider including unsweetened cocoa in your diet: “I put it in smoothies and add it to desserts.”
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