I’ll be honest—I love chocolate year-round. But with the mercury dipping, a cup of hot cocoa or bite of silky, rich dark chocolate seems that much more appealing.
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Fortunately, as a registered dietitian and the associate nutrition editor of EatingWell Magazine I have come across several health reasons to justify such an indulgence (in fact, chocolate is just one of 9 “Bad” Foods You Should Be Eating ). Here’s a roundup of the latest health boons attributed to chocolate:
1. It’s (almost) a diet food. Preliminary findings from Hershey suggest that natural cocoa, which has more flavanols than Dutch-processed cocoa, may limit the number of calories you actually take in during digestion by quashing the action of certain digestive enzymes, thus preventing some fats and starches in other foods from being absorbed. More research is needed—this study was done in test tubes, not humans—but the authors hope that the results will hold up in human trials.
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2. It’s heart-healthy. As Joyce Hendley reported in EatingWell Magazine, a large study out of Harvard, published in 2010, found that women who ate one or two ounces of chocolate a week had a 32 percent lower risk of heart failure than women who ate no chocolate. It’s possible that compounds in cocoa called flavanols help activate enzymes that release nitric oxide—a substance that helps widen and relax blood vessels. That allows blood to flow through the vessels more freely, reducing blood pressure. Nitric oxide is also involved in thinning blood and reducing its tendency to clot—lowering, potentially, the risk of stroke. Not only that, some of the key flavanols in cocoa, catechins and epicatechins (also found in red wine and green tea), are known to have heart-healthy, antioxidant effects—such as helping to prevent artery-threatening LDL cholesterol from converting to a more lethal, oxidized form.
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3. It makes you smile. Just the sight of chocolate can evoke a smile, according to a recent British survey. Sixty percent of women ranked chocolate as the most smile-worthy experience, edging out loved ones and other smiling people. (FYI, the top pick for men was a “Sunday roast.”) Find 4 more foods that boost your mood  naturally.
4. It helps you see better. When researchers had study participants eat dark chocolate, they were better able to distinguish items on a similarly colored background and took less time to detect the direction of moving dots (two measurements important for night driving) than when they ate white chocolate. Researchers think that flavanols—antioxidants present in dark chocolate, but absent in white chocolate—improved vision.
Three tips for making the healthiest chocolate choice:
1) Opt for natural cocoa powder over alkalized—the alkalization process strips many of the beneficial compounds from cocoa.
2) Choose dark chocolate with a higher cacao content.
3) Remember that chocolate still delivers added sugars and extra calories, so be mindful of that if you’re watching your weight.
What's your favorite way to eat chocolate? Tell us what you think below.