Valentine’s Day News for Heart Health
February in the US is Heart Awareness month.
Since we rely on our trusty pump to function, it’s probably good to remind ourselves at least yearly that it’s worth taking care of. After all, cardiovascular disease is still the most common cause of death in the US. The next is Cancer.
This is serious business, but something each of us can do a lot about by how we choose to live, including diet, exercise and specific nutrients. In the coming weeks I’ll be sharing additional timely information in this 'Healthy Heart' series about: Omega 3 oils, CoEnzyme Q10, L-Carnitine, L-Taurine, Magnesium, Grapeseed extract and others. Stay tuned!
For many of us, when we think Valentine’s Day, we think HEARTS and we think CHOCOLATE!
Chocolate is another one of those foods with an undeserved reputation for being totally unhealthy for us. No, the title of “Health Food” has not yet been conferred upon it but chocolate’s reputation for health-giving properties is rapidly increasing among the medical community and the population at large. Did you know that chocolate is really a fruit? As such, how can it help but contain many beneficial nutrients?
The ingredients of Cacao are actually good for our hearts. Cacao as originally used by the Aztecs was served as a cold drink, unsweetened, and therefore very bitter. Once Europeans got a taste of the cacao drink they began adding sweeteners and the Chocolate we are more familiar with was born. By adding some of the previously extracted cocoa butter back into "Dutched" cocoa, Cadbury's of England was the first to create "formed" chocolate into the bar shape we know so well. Milk chocolate was concocted much later by the Hershey Company. By the way, it’s the Sugar contained in modern chocolate even more than the fat that has negative health consequences, not the cacao. Evidence to the effect that sugar intake produces far more deleterious health consequences than fat intake is growing steadily. (For more on this subject CLICK HERE to review my recent blog, “Heart Disease & Nutrition in the 21st Century”).
The Medical Journal Heart recently reported a study that followed the health of nearly 21,000 people in England for 11 years. Of those who ate plenty of chocolate, 12% developed or died from heart disease during the study compared to 17.4% who didn’t consume chocolate. The chocolate eaters also had a 25% lower risk of associated death. It is important to note that this study employed milk chocolate, not dark chocolate. Had the study used dark chocolate one would have anticipated an even more dramatic difference between the two groups, the chocolate consumers having a far lower morbidity rate. The study’s author, Professor Myint, said previous studies showed improved function of the endothelium (lining of vessels), increased HDL, and lowered LDL.
Scientists aren’t sure yet what it is about chocolate that seems to boost heart health. It may be related to flavonoids, plant based anti-oxidants, also found in tea, red wine, blueberries, apples, pears, cherries and nuts. Flavonoids in cocoa have been shown to lower blood pressure, improve blood flow, prevent blood clots, fight cell damage (aging), and increase concentration. Two of the antioxidants in cocoa, catechins and epicatechins, increase nutrient uptake thereby boosting energy. Studies demonstrate a minimum 30% increase in fatigue resistance from these compounds. Some flavonoids are known anti-inflammatory compounds and have been shown to result in a five-fold decrease in the perception of soreness. These factors combined create the ability to pursue a far more vigorous exercise regimen.
MRIs of the head have revealed that cocoa increases brain circulation, likely secondary to the flavonoid content. While researchers differ on the optimal amount of cocoa consumed in order to confer beneficial properties such as improved circulation, it has been demonstrated that even taking small amounts over a five day period caused a moderate increase in cognitive function in healthy adults as measured by performance tests. While an Italian study concluded that 20 grams of dark chocolate eaten every three days was the optimal dose for cardiovascular benefit, German researchers recently suggested that a consistent daily 40 gram dose taken for eight weeks was necessary for overall maximum therapeutic benefit.
One very surprising finding arising from a study undertaken in the Netherlands recently concluded that simply inhaling the aroma of chocolate with an 85% cocoa content caused a decrease in appetite by upwards of 50%! It was found that this scent stimulated the production of ghrelin (a naturally occurring anti-hunger hormone) that lasted on average one hour. Works for me!
So, if you happen to be a chocolate lover you may be in luck, health-wise. No, this is not a license to consume an inordinate amount of chocolate confections. And it should be clear that chocolate with the highest percentage cocoa content, optimally 70% or more, and the lowest amount of added sugar and dairy products is the best way to consume this delectable fruit. Yes, there are many who cannot abide the bitterness of very dark chocolate but for you it is suggested you sample cacao nibs, available online and in better food shops. Chefs have been devising many savory recipes to which unsweetened cocoa is added: bean dishes, soups and stews, roasted vegetable platters. You can even try adding cocoa to your hot oatmeal at breakfast (it’s difficult to incorporate cocoa in cold dishes without first dissolving in a hot liquid).
Since Valentine’s Day is this Sunday, I can’t think of a better excuse to sample a good quality dark chocolate and enjoy the day secure in the knowledge you are doing something beneficial for your overall health.
Wishing you all a Happy, Heart-healthy, and delicious Valentine's Day!
drB & Polly
FYI -- Here are some of the better known of the nearly 130 beneficial compounds contained in chocolate:
Chocolate (on average) contains:
Protein: 2 grams/1 oz. (28 grams)
Fiber: 2 grams/1 oz.
Fat: 7-10+ grams (mostly saturated)/1 oz
Theobromine (a mild stimulant and diuretic),
Phenylethylamine (mild mood enhancer due to stimulation similar to dopamine and adrenaline)
Serotonine (mildly increases serotonin in the brain).
Tryptophan (precursor to serotonin which is a precursor to endorphins)
A, B1, B2, B3, C, E, Pantothenic acid