Recently by Mark Sisson: I Decided I Had Nothing To Lose
Yes, I know, I know. That title isn’t exactly comforting. I hate giving you guys bad news, seeing as how you make this website possible, and I hate making unpopular recommendations like “eat more butter” or “get some sun” or “drink a glass of red wine,” but I have to stick to the truth here, even if it hurts. And the truth is that you should probably be eating dark chocolate on a semi-regular basis because the stuff is pretty dang good for you. Before you log out, never to return again, give me a minute to explain myself:
You were kids once. Your parents probably forced you to finish your overcooked, mushy, bland veggies or wash your hands and finish your homework — or some other routine unpleasantry — “for your own good,” and that’s what I’m doing here. Dark chocolate is healthy. It may be awful, terrible, and disgusting, but it contains some really good things that have some remarkable effects on various markers of health. So, yeah, eat your chocolate. Finish your raw cacao powder. Choke down that homemade hot chocolate. Hold your noses if you have to, but get it down and done.
I’m kidding, of course. There’s no arm twisting required when it comes to chocolate. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that the Primal community can suck down some high quality dark chocolate. Don’t think I didn’t see how quickly that chocolate disappeared at last year’s PrimalCon. And why wouldn’t it? Dark chocolate’s great, the perfect storm of flavor, flavonoids, and fat. It tastes really good, comes loaded with polyphenols, and cocoa butter is a great source of saturated and monounsaturated fat. High-cacao dark chocolate, then, is quite literally a healthy candy bar. What’s not to love?
I’ve discussed my favorite dark chocolate in the past. I’ve even provided chocolate-choosing tips. But until today, I’ve never really explained why we should be including high-cacao dark chocolate in our diets. I’ve never explicitly outlined the myriad health benefits that cacao offers. Well, let’s get to it, shall we?
Dark chocolate contains healthy fats.
Cocoa butter, which is extracted from the cacao bean and incorporated into most reputable dark chocolate bars, is mostly monounsaturated and saturated fat, with very little polyunsaturated fat. And because most of that saturated fat is stearic acid, widely known for having neutral effects on LDL, even avowed lipophobes can happily and heartily gobble up cacao fat.
Dark chocolate contains lots of polyphenols, particularly flavanols.
When it comes to polyphenol content and antioxidant capacity, cacao trounces the “superfruits” acai, pomegranate, cranberry, blueberry and whatever else your annoying friend who always falls for multilevel marketing schemes is hawking this week. The most studied polyphenol in cacao is epicatechin, a flavanol. Although last week’s post on the benefits of polyphenol consumption centered on pigment-derived antioxidants, cacao’s polyphenols are also quite potent and potentially healthful.
What happens when the rubber hits the road, though? Or, somewhat more literally, what happens when the square of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate melts on the tongue, is swallowed, digested, and incorporated into the body? What are the actual health benefits of consuming high-cacao content dark chocolate?
Dark chocolate and blood pressure.
Epidemiological studies pretty consistently show that dark chocolate consumption is related to lower blood pressure readings. In Jordan, among Kuna Indians living in Panama, among pregnant women, and among elderly Dutch, this holds true. That’s all well and good, but it’s just an association. We need controlled studies:
One found that fifteen days of eating dark chocolate, but not white chocolate, lowered blood pressure (and improved insulin sensitivity) in healthy subjects. The main difference between white and dark chocolate is the polyphenol content; both types contain cocoa fat. Cocoa consumption also improved arterial flow in smokers.
Some studies suggest that the flavonoids are key. In one, flavanol-rich dark chocolate consumption improved endothelial function while increasing plasma levels of flavanols (which indicates the flavanols had something to do with it). Another study used flavanol-rich cocoa to increase nitric oxide production in healthy humans, thus inducing vasodilation and improving endothelial function. In another, the highest dose of cacao flavanoids caused the biggest drop in blood pressure. Still another found that while dark chocolate did not reduce blood pressure, improve lipids, nor reduce oxidative stress, it did improve coronary circulation.
Or maybe it’s the soluble fiber. In “spontaneously hypertensive” rats, cacao-derived soluble fiber lowered blood pressure, perhaps by reducing weight gain.
It’s probably both, in my opinion, although the polyphenols undoubtedly contribute more to the cause than the five grams or so of soluble fiber you’ll get in the average serving of dark chocolate.