A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Can you heart your heart with chocolate? Kind of.

Dish of chocolate hearts - How many chocolates can I have?

“There is research showing flavanols found in cocoa solids may improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, reducing risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Chocolate goes with Valentine’s Day like turkey goes with Thanksgiving.

Heart-shaped boxes of delicious chocolates have been staple gifts for a long time. What if the heart-shaped box also could be a symbol of heart health?

Research to-date shows chocolate can be enjoyed as part of a balanced, heart-healthy diet and lifestyle. In the U.S. alone, more than 58 million pounds of chocolate candy are sold during Valentine’s week.

What makes chocolate a healthful food?

It’s the flavanols. They’re found in the cocoa beans that make up chocolate. Flavanols are functional foods thought to have heart health benefits.

In chocolate, a higher percentage of cocoa solids and a more bitter taste indicate more flavanols.

“The stronger the bitter taste, the more potential for health benefits,” said Brittany Powelson, Marshfield Clinic dietitian. “There is research showing flavanols found in cocoa solids may improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, reducing risk of cardiovascular disease.”

Different combinations of cocoa solids, milk, sugar and other ingredients are used to produce chocolate. Dark chocolate has more cocoa solids and is higher in nutrients such as manganese, copper, magnesium and iron.

Tastes too good to be true?

Benefits are seen when you consume dark chocolate regularly in small amounts, which is generally one ounce per day maximum. This allows you to get health benefits from flavanols and still keep calories and saturated fat within recommended limits.

“Eating an overload of chocolate for Valentine’s Day won’t provide you with health benefits seen in research,” Powelson said.

In fact, overindulging during holidays can have negative health consequences.

Chocolate is a concentrated source of fat and calories, she said. Depending on type and brand, sugar content can be high, too. Most Americans reach for milk chocolate, which can have lots of added sugar.

Tips to avoid overindulging

Pick a reasonable portion size

“I like to buy individually wrapped chocolates,” Powelson said. “Grab one or two to satisfy your taste and then put the bag out-of-sight.”

This may feel more doable than eating portions of a large candy bar and trying to wrap it up for later.

Replace milk chocolate with dark chocolate and fruit

Research is clear. Dark chocolate trumps milk chocolate in the health world because it has higher content of cocoa solids that contain healthful flavanols.

Fruit is another way to satisfy your sweet tooth without fat and added sugars.

“Most Americans don’t eat enough fruit,” Powelson said. “It’s still sweet, just what we may be craving and has added benefits of fiber, vitamins and minerals.”

Find healthy substitutions

When your favorite chocolate brownie recipe is calling your name, go for it, but give it a facelift like substituting eggs or sugar with applesauce.

“There are many healthy baking substitution lists online to pull from,” Powelson said. “Even in your favorite recipes, finding healthy ingredient alternatives can cut down calories and bump up nutrition.”

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