You just want an excuse to start eating more chocolate don’t you? But fear not my friend, dark chocolate in reasonable quantities just might outweigh the negative caloric impact.
Cocoa products are a rich source of flavanols – a group of compounds from the flavonoid family. And dark chocolate with high contents of cocoa is a good source of flavanol as well. Flavanols are very powerful antioxidants with a variety of proven health effects. Noted and most consistent health effects have been found for cardiovascular health, normal blood flow, lower risks of morbidity due to stroke and heart attack, reduction in blood pressure, improved inner blood vessel lining functioning, and others.
Because cardiovascular health has been closely linked to cognitive performance, newer studies have assessed exactly that – the neurocognitive and behavioral effects of flavanol consumption. The flavanol contents themselves were administered through dark chocolate or cocoa beans powder mixes.
Flavonoids that penetrate and accumulate in the brain regions are involved in learning and memory, especially the hippocampus. There are two possible ways how eating dark chocolate, and with it a rich source of flavanols, can exert its measured effects.
- They directly influence certain chains of events in cells, which produce an increased activation of proteins that promote the birth of new neurons, their function, and brain connectivity itself. These proteins also have a protective effect.
- They improve blood flow and enable a process called angiogenesis. Because of this, new blood vessels get formed from pre-existing ones in the brain and sensory systems.
There has been a lot of anecdotal evidence how chocolate consumption has a variety of health effects. And as we know, scientists have a special nose for areas of anecdotal evidence. Quite a lot of work has actually been done to answer the question whether chocolate consumption can be considered a healthy eating habit.
Aging and neurological diseases
Different population studies have observed positive connections between having a rich source of flavanol in eating patterns (chocolate, wine, tea) and better cognitive scores in older populations. When older people (50+ years) had higher intakes of chocolate and wine (both being a rich source of flavanols) they had better scores on cognitive tests and slower declines in performance.
This sharp improvement was observed when people ate more than 10 g of chocolate and more than 75-100 ml of red wine. One meta-analysis with a sample of 114,009 people found out that there was a 29% reduction of stroke risk in people, who ate a lot of chocolate, compared to those who ate less chocolate.
But – these are observational studies. Let’s turn our attention to the clinical ones.
There was a 10% improvement in blood flow in the middle cerebral artery in elderly people who had received a high flavanol dose in the form of cocoa, after only two weeks. Judging by these results, a high-flavanol consumption could have an important role in the treatment of dementia and stroke, as a diminished blood flow is one of the issues in these diseases.
In another study, people who were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment were given either 1 g or 0,5 g of cocoa flavanols for 8 weeks. Both scored better on different cognitive tests compared to the control group. They also noted lower blood pressure, insulin resistance, and degradation of lipids in these two groups.
Different animal studies also noted that the long-term consumption has beneficial effects on normal aging, dementia, and the risk of stroke.
Attention, cognition, memory, mood
The same study that I was just mentioning also saw an improvement in how fast they were processing information with their eyes. However, they also made more errors during a task in which they had to subtract numbers. Another interesting finding was observed in the medium dose group (0,5 g). People from this group reported that they felt less mentally tired after doing these tasks.
When people were given 35 g of dark chocolate just once, their visual contrast sensitivity improved. They had to read numbers of varying light intensities on the background. Moreover, their working memory for location improved as well, they spent less time making choices, and they needed less time to detect the direction of motion in their surroundings.
Healthy middle-aged people were also calmer and more content after drinking drinks with a high flavanol content for 30 days. Supplementing people with a high flavanol cocktail could improve symptoms of clinical anxiety and depression to a certain extent.
Should I eat chocolate all day?
No. Not at all.
On the one hand, dark chocolate can have the mentioned health effects and positive benefits. On the other hand, it is high in calories, and to get the mentioned health effects we don’t really need to look for them only in dark chocolate.
Flavanols themselves occur in high concentrations in other food items as well. These include green tea, red wine, fruits (apple skin, grapes, pears), berries (blueberries), and vegetables (tomatoes, soy, olives). It is also worth mentioning that the content of flavanols in dark chocolate differs greatly in regard to the geographic origin, the way it was cultivated, processed, harvested, and manufactured. So some consideration should be put into that aspect if we decide to buy dark chocolate too.
What would be the best option? In order to still eat healthy, support your healthy eating habits, and receive the health effects – consumption in the form of cocoa beans, cocoa powder, or other sources of flavanols, would be the healthiest idea. If not that, opting for chocolate that has higher contents of cocoa (70% +) would be a good rule of thumb.
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