Healthy Reasons to Eat Dark Chocolate
A bite of dark chocolate a day could not only be good for your heart, but may also improve brain function, alleviate stress, and lower the risk of diabetes.
If you’ve dreamt of eating chocolate every day, now you have an excuse — or eight.
Scientific studies have shown that dark chocolate — sorry, milk and white chocolate don’t count — is rich in antioxidants and packed with nutrients, making this bittersweet treat a superfood favorite.
Dark chocolate contains phytonutrients called flavonoids, which are plant chemicals that act as antioxidants and may play a role in cancer prevention and heart health, according to research published in 2016 in the Journal of Nutritional Science. The cacao plant that chocolate is derived from also contains a compound called theobromine, which Toby Amidor, RD, a cookbook author and nutrition expert for Food Network, says may help reduce inflammation and potentially lower blood pressure.
“Cacao is packed with numerous antioxidants — actually more than green tea or red wine,” she says. “The darker you go, the more antioxidants you’ll get, but there needs to be a balance between eating palatable dark chocolate and getting the health benefits.”
Your best bet is choosing a bar with 70 percent cacao or higher, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; bars with lower percentages of cacao have more added sugar and unhealthy fats. And even though quality dark chocolate is a better choice than milk chocolate, it is still chocolate, meaning it’s high in calories and saturated fat. To avoid weight gain, Amidor recommends eating no more than 1 ounce (oz) of dark chocolate per day. Now, a look at some benefits this treat offers.
1. Dark Chocolate May Help Prevent Heart Disease and Lower the Risk of Stroke
One of the biggest benefits that researchers tout is the role dark chocolate may play in improving heart health. A systematic review and meta-analysis published in July 2020 in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology found that eating chocolate once per week was associated with an 8 percent lower risk of blocked arteries. Another large study, published in May 2021 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, analyzed data from more than 188,000 veterans and concluded that regularly eating about 1 oz of chocolate was associated with a lower risk of coronary artery disease.
Research suggests it’s the flavonoids in dark chocolate that maintain heart health. These chemicals help produce nitric oxide, which causes blood vessels to relax and blood pressure to lower, per a review published in March 2017 in the American Journal of Physiology: Cell Physiology.
Because many of these studies are observational, the results could be skewed by people underreporting their chocolate intake. The studies are also limited in that they can’t directly establish cause and effect.
A meta-analysis published in July 2017 in Nutrients, however, acknowledged that margin for error and still found that chocolate was likely beneficial in reducing the risk of heart health, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
2. The Treat May Improve Cognition, Prevent Memory Loss, and Boost Your Mood
No, it’s not your imagination — studies show that consuming dark chocolate with high percentages of cacao, such as 70 percent, may benefit your brain. There is research indicating that chocolate stimulates neural activity in areas of the brain associated with pleasure and reward, which in turn decreases stress and improves your mood, says Joy DuBost, PhD, RD, a food scientist, registered dietitian, and owner of Dubost Food and Nutrition Solutions in Arlington, Virginia.
Several studies have begun to narrow down just how chocolate can impact the brain. Research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting found that eating 48 grams (g) — a little more than 1.5 oz — of 70 percent cacao organic chocolate increased neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form new synaptic connections, which could have positive effects on memory, cognition, and mood.
Furthermore, a study published in April 2018 in The FASEB Journal found that memory and learning could be enhanced by chocolate consumption, as the flavonoids — the powerful plant compounds in cacao beans — tend to accumulate in areas of the brain responsible for those functions. A study published in Depression & Anxiety in July 2019 even linked the consumption of dark chocolate to reduced risk of clinical depression.
While all of these findings can be exciting (especially for your sweet tooth), it’s worth noting that studies with larger sample sizes need to be conducted, and further research is necessary to investigate the mechanisms involved. So before you run out and stock up on chocolate bars, keep that in mind. Plus, most studies used much higher quantities of chocolate than the recommended daily dose (1.5 oz maximum).
3. Dark Chocolate Could Improve Blood Sugar Levels, and Reduce the Risk of Developing Diabetes
Eating chocolate every day doesn’t sound like the best way to prevent diabetes, but studies have shown healthy amounts of dark chocolate rich in cacao could actually improve how the body metabolizes glucose when eaten as part of a healthy diet. Insulin resistance causes high blood glucose (sugar) and is the hallmark of type 2 diabetes, per an article published in March 2019 by StatPearls.
In a study published in October 2017 in the Journal of Community and Hospital Internal Medicine Perspectives, the flavonoids in dark chocolate were found to reduce oxidative stress, which scientists think is the primary cause of insulin resistance. By improving your body’s sensitivity to insulin, resistance is reduced, and in turn the risk of diseases like diabetes decreases.
Another study, published in January 2017 in the journal Appetite, showed that participants who rarely consumed chocolate had almost twice the risk of developing diabetes five years down the road, compared with participants who indulged in dark chocolate at least once per week.
While researchers agree dark chocolate possesses many health benefits, further study is needed to determine if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between chocolate consumption and diabetes risk.
4. Chocolate Is Good for Your Gut and May Help With Weight Loss
Eating chocolate every day probably seems like the last way to lose weight, but research suggests dark chocolate may play a role in controlling appetite, which in turn could help with weight loss. Neuroscientist Will Clower, PhD, wrote a book on the subject called Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight, which describes how eating a bit of dark chocolate before or after meals triggers hormones that signal to the brain you’re full. Of course, eating more than the recommended amount per day can counteract any potential weight loss, and eating dark chocolate will not counteract the effects of an overall unhealthy diet.
Past research has found that during digestion, chocolate behaves like a prebiotic (not to be confused with probiotic), a type of fiber that encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. The more “good” microbes are in your system, the better your body is able to absorb nutrients as well as support a healthy metabolism, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
A study published in June 2021 in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology found that even milk chocolate could aid in weight loss by boosting metabolism and curbing appetite. However, the participant group was small (just 19 women), which means further research is needed to corroborate those claims. And it’s important to note that chocolate, especially milk chocolate, is high in calories so should be consumed in moderation — eating more won’t benefit you more.
5. It Fights Free Radicals and May Play a Role in Cancer Prevention
Evidence that dark chocolate possesses properties that could help protect against certain types of cancer is limited but growing. Antioxidants protect our cells from damage caused by free radicals, which are unstable oxygen molecules thought to be responsible for aging and disease, per previous research.
“When you have too many free radicals in your body, they start to attack your cells, and that can lead, over time, to low-grade inflammation and to some diseases — cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s,” Dr. DuBost says.
According to the American Cancer Society, eating a diet rich in flavonoids, which chocolate is full of, can help prevent cell damage that is often the precursor to many cancers. Past research has found that of the many flavonoids in chocolate, one known as epicatechin is believed to be responsible for its cancer-fighting properties. Chocolate also tends to be a good source of magnesium, per USDA data, and a study published in January 2022 in the journal Cell found that the body’s immune cells can target abnormal or infected cells only in a magnesium-rich environment.
Still, most research is limited by using only animals or cell cultures, and the amount of chocolate needed to potentially yield preventative action against cancers is much higher than the daily recommended dose for humans.
6. It’s Good for Your Skin (in More Ways Than One)
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health lists vitamins and minerals dark chocolate is packed full of — like copper, iron, magnesium, and manganese, to name a few — that are also beneficial to your skin. Manganese, for example, supports the production of collagen, a protein that helps keep skin looking young and healthy. Several earlier studies have also found the high levels of antioxidants in dark chocolate may protect skin from the powerful ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted by the sun.
Other research failed to show any significant protective effects of antioxidant-rich chocolate against UV rays, but did show improvements in the elasticity of skin exposed to the sun, although the exact mechanism of this isn’t known.
7. Dark Chocolate May Send Good Cholesterol up, Bad Cholesterol Down
Dark chocolate is also touted as a cholesterol-lowering food, which explains why, in a study published in November 2017 in the Journal of the American Heart Association, a handful of almonds, dark chocolate, and unsweetened cocoa showed a significant drop in overweight and obese participants’ low-density lipoproteins (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol.
DuBost says the cocoa butter in dark chocolate may also play a part in raising high-density lipoproteins (HDL), or “good” cholesterol. Cocoa butter contains oleic acid, which is a monounsaturated fat — the same fat you find in heart-healthy olive oil, notes the National Library of Medicine. However, unlike olive oil, cocoa butter is also high in saturated fat, per the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which in excess can be harmful to the heart, further emphasizing the need for portion control.
Not to mention, many of the studies on chocolate and good cholesterol are short term, so it’s premature to say that chocolate is a cholesterol cure-all, DuBost adds.
8. Dark Chocolate Is Nutritious — and Delicious!
On top of all the other potential benefits, one thing is for sure: Dark chocolate contains a ton of nutrients. Of course, the darker the chocolate the better, but any 70 percent dark chocolate or higher contains antioxidants, fiber, potassium, calcium, copper, and magnesium, according to an overview published in December 2019 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
It also contains a good chunk of calories and fat, so be mindful of your daily intake. Each brand of chocolate is also processed differently; Amidor says going organic is always best because it’s grown without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides (look for Rainforest Alliance Certified products). She also recommends always checking the ingredient list to make sure you’re consuming chocolate with fewer and more natural ingredients.