According to RDs, the food many of us crave most has a number of nutritional benefits to offer.

By Betty Gold
February 04, 2021
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As if we needed one more reason to love chocolate. According to Abbie Gellman, MS, RD, CDN, chef at the Institute of Culinary Education, this treat has health benefits, like antioxidants and amino acids, that—when consumed in moderation—help protect your cardiovascular system, reduce inflammation, and more.

And what good timing, seeing as Valentine's Day is right around the corner. Read on to find what you'll reap from your favorite chocolate desserts, like chocolate-covered strawberries, hot chocolate bombs, truffles, and Flourless Spiced Hot Chocolate Cake (yes, please). And a quick word to the wise: Try to avoid going overboard on the sugary stuff, because that'll counteract any of cacao's health-promoting properties.

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“Chocolate is packed with a variety of flavonoids; one square of dark chocolate provides approximately 140 milligrams of flavonoids,” says Gellman. “These flavonoid antioxidants have been shown to have a positive effect on cardiovascular disease risk. For instance, research has shown that these flavonoids are protective against damage to the lining of the arteries. They also work in a similar way to a low dose of aspirin to prevent blood platelets from clumping together and forming blood clots, which may lead to heart attack or stroke.”

For the biggest flavonoid bang for your caloric buck, Gellman recommends choosing high quality, semi-sweet dark chocolate with the highest cocoa content that suits your palate. “I recommend 70-85 percent cacao, but the higher the percentage, the more bitter it may taste.”

According to Gellman, chocolate can provide significant amounts of arginine, which is an amino acid that is required in the production of nitric oxide. Nitric oxide helps to regulate blood flow, inflammation, and blood pressure because it causes blood vessels to dilate.

“Chocolate contains small amounts of sitosterol and stigmasterol, which are plant sterols. These plant sterols compete with and therefore inhibit the absorption of dietary cholesterol. This may contribute to improved blood lipid profiles,” Gellman explains.

In addition, the flavonoids in dark chocolate may help increase insulin sensitivity. “Essentially, this may be good news for type 2 diabetics,” Gellman says. Insulin is a hormone secreted by your pancreas that controls the amount of glucose in our bloodstream. It also helps to store glucose in your fat, muscles, and liver as well as regulating overall metabolism of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Insulin is what is lacking or hindered in diabetics and pre-diabetics. Basically, insulin sensitivity is an important part of our body's proper response to food. “Research has suggested that people who eat a moderate amount of dark chocolate at least once a week had a lower prevalence of type 2 diabetes. Studies have also shown that for those who already have type 2 diabetes and consumed moderate amounts of dark chocolate had lower blood pressure and decreased blood sugar levels compared to those who ate white chocolate.”

The fiber, fat, and protein content of chocolate may help increase satiety, or a feeling of fullness.

Just remember: These findings aren't an Rx to OD on chocolate. While the compounds found in cocoa may provide some powerful health benefits, there are a number of more nutritious whole foods that offer significantly greater antioxidant, heart health, and blood sugar regulating benefits with a lot less sugar.

Still, chocolate sparks serious joy, which certainly counts for something.