7 Real Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate

Yes, it's added to sugary brownies and unhealthy candies, but the benefits of pure, unadulterated dark chocolate could save your life.

February 12, 2014
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Very few of us need a compelling reason to make ourselves eat chocolate. The taste and the momentary mood lift are enough to make it a treat that doesn't need a hard sell.

But if you aren't eating it consistently, you could be missing out on some of the most amazing health benefits of dark chocolate you never knew about, writes Will Clower, PhD, author of Eat Chocolate, Lose Weight. "Given the fact that healthy cultures eat chocolate all the time and research has yet to show anything but confirmatory evidence about the health effects of high-cocoa chocolate," he says, "it seems logical that you should eat chocolate every day, like a delicious vitamin."

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Of course, you have to eat the right chocolate—the candy bars in the grocery store checkout lane aren't going to cut it. You'll reap the greatest health benefits of dark chocolate with products that have 70 percent, or higher, cocoa levels.

So what are those great benefits? Aside from chocolate's reputation as an aphrodisiac and a momentary mood-booster, here are seven legitimate reasons you should be eating it every day.

#1: Healthier skin.
Eating antioxidant-rich chocolate leads to skin that's smoother, less dried out, and more resistant to sunburn, studies have shown. One, in the European Journal of Nutrition, found that consistently eating cocoa for 12 weeks reduced moisture loss in skin by 25 percent—the best news ever for dry-skin sufferers. Another benefit? Fewer sunburns. British researchers gave two groups of women either dark or milk chocolate for 12 weeks, and at the end of the study, those in the dark chocolate group had doubled their protection against UV rays, while the other group saw no benefit. Basically, it took UV rays that were twice as strong to cause burns in the dark chocolate group by the study's end. Cocoa boosts blood circulation to the fine capillaries in the top layer of skin, vessels that are better equipped to draw oxygen and nutrients that protect skin against dehydration and burns.

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#2: Healthier teeth.
It's the sugar in chocolate candies that rots your teeth—cocoa actually protects them. Cocoa bean husks contain antibacterial compounds that inhibit the formation of plaque and biofilms where cavity-causing bacteria can thrive. In fact, in a study of Indian children who hadn't brushed in four days, a single rinse with a cocoa-based mouthwash reduced plaque by nearly 50 percent and killed 21 percent of bacteria.

#3: Reduced cravings and weight gain.
Cocoa is rich in fiber and protein; a standard-size dark chocolate bar contains 4 grams and 8 to 9 grams, respectively, of each, and a tablespoon of cocoa powder contains 4 grams and 1 gram of each. But here's another interesting fact about chocolate: Researchers from the Netherlands found that people who simply smelled 85-percent dark chocolate reported that their appetite levels dropped by up to half. Smelling dark chocolate, they found, stimulates production of an antihunger hormone called ghrelin, and the effect lingers for about an hour.

#4: A healthier heart.
Chocolate is often vilified because it contains cocoa butter, which is high in saturated fat. But it turns out that like other forms of saturated fat, such as coconut oil, cocoa butter could actually be good for you. One-third of the fat in cocoa butter is stearic acid, which your liver converts to a healthy monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. Oleic acid actually lowers levels of bad (LDL) cholesterol and boosts levels of good (HDL). Also, the multiple anti-inflammatory compounds in cocoa help fight chronic vascular inflammation, improve flexibility in blood vessels thereby reducing your blood pressure, and keep platelets from sticking together and clogging up your artery walls—all things that can contribute to heart disease.

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#5: Sharper focus.
Magnetic resonance imaging studies have shown that chocolate boosts blood circulation to the brain, which can improve your ability to focus. Taking a small amount of cocoa flavanols for five days led to better blood flow to the brain in healthy adults who were performing cognitive tasks.

#6: Less anxiety.
Stress prompts your body to produce cortisol, which has an added downside of triggering the accumulation of the abdominal, or visceral, fat that builds up around your organs and can contribute to depression, along with heart disease and stroke. Yet a 2009 study found that people who ate 40 grams (about an ounce) of chocolate every day for two weeks saw decreases in levels of cortisol in their systems compared to its levels at the start of the study. Another study a year later showed that, over the course of 30 days, people who ate cocoa daily had 10 percent lower levels of anxiety and considered themselves 10 percent calmer than they had been at the start of the study.

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#7: A more effective workout.
Boosting your pre-exercise energy levels, powering through a hard sweat session, and cutting down on post-workout soreness—chocolate helps all three. Cocoa's catechins and epicatechins, two kinds of antioxidants, increase your muscle's absorption of nutrients that create energy, which can help you get energized to work out and help carry you through your workout. In one study, these energizing antioxidants produced a 30 percent increased in "fatigue resistance" in lab animals after two weeks of consistent cocoa consumption. Likewise, the anti-inflammatory compounds in cocoa can produce up to a five-fold decrease in your perception of soreness, compared to drinking carb shakes or other muscle-recovery beverages. The best way to benefit? After your workout, put a few thumb-sized pieces of dark chocolate on your tongue and let them melt.

The key to reaping all these benefits is consistency, writes Dr. Clower. He recommends eating 40 grams a day for at least eight weeks, with each daily serving divided into eight 5-gram (roughly the size of the end joint on your thumb) pieces. Let those sit on your tongue and melt slowly.

If you don't like dark chocolates, you can add the equivalent amount of non-Dutched cocoa powder (Dutch-processed cocoa has far lower levels of antioxidants) or cacao nibs, which are like sugar-free chocolate chips, to your food. Five grams of powder is equal to roughly one teaspoon. Need some ideas on how to incorporate them into your daily diet? Check out these 5 Surprisingly Healthy Cocoa Recipes.