If you're craving chocolate and feeling guilty, drop the guilt and pick up the chocolate. Over the past few decades, chocolate has gone from being the bane of healthy diets to being hailed as a help for major health problems, such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Scientists believe that inflammation is at the heart of many diseases, and numerous studies show that dark chocolate is a rich source of antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties. Still, scientists didn't understand the mechanism. Finally, a study at Louisiana State University earlier this year unraveled the mystery: "Good" bacteria in the human gut breaks down chocolate and ferments it to produce powerful anti-inflammatory compounds.
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The next time you want a bar of chocolate, just think about all of the ways you could be giving your health a boost:
• Weight loss. Several studies have linked eating chocolate to a lower body mass index (BMI). Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, found that men and women who ate small amounts of chocolate five days a week had a lower body mass index (BMI) than people who avoided the sweet treat, even if they consumed more calories and didn't exercise more. The researchers believe that antioxidants found in chocolate called catechins improve lean muscle mass and reduce weight. And researchers from Spain's University of Grenada found that teens who ate the most chocolate had a lower BMI than those who ate little chocolate.
• Heart Attack and Stroke. An eight-year German study of almost 20,000 people found that those who ate an average of about two ounces of chocolate each day reduced their risk of both heart attacks and strokes by 39 percent. A British review of seven studies found a 29 percent reduced risk of stroke in those who ate chocolate more than twice a week, and a Swedish study found that women who ate more than 1.5 ounces of chocolate a week decreased their risk of stroke by 20 percent when compared to women who ate less than a third of an ounce every week. A 10-year Australian study found that women over the age of 70 who ate chocolate at least once a week were 60 percent less likely to die from heart failure during the study. Compounds in chocolate have been shown to improve circulation and to have blood-thinning properties.
Although dark chocolate is usually recommended, studies have found that milk chocolate can be beneficial as well. A Swedish study of more than 37,000 men found that men who ate about one-third cup of chocolate chips each week reduced their risk of stroke by 19 percent when compared to men who ate no chocolate at all. For every one-quarter cup increase in chocolate every week, the risk of stroke decreased an additional 14 percent.
• Diabetes. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food and Chemistry found that frequent consumption of chocolate lowered blood sugar levels. In addition, a previous Italian study found that eating chocolate regularly accelerates the body's ability to metabolize glucose, thus increasing insulin sensitivity and reducing the diabetes risk. Cocoa powder is rich in flavonoids, say researchers, which help counteract insulin resistance, the condition that prevents the body from using insulin effectively.
• Colon cancer.Eating dark chocolate every day could reduce your risk of developing colon cancer, the third leading cause of death. In a study published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, researchers exposed rats to the carcinogen azoxymethane. Those rats that were fed a diet containing 12 percent cocoa for eight weeks had fewer precancerous lesions than rats that didn't get cocoa in their diets. Scientists believe that the natural antioxidants in cocoa called polyphenols destroy inflammation-causing free radicals which they believe spur the development of colon cancer.
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•Dementia. A study published in the American Heart Association's journal Hypertension found that flavanols, a type of antioxidant found in cocoa, give the brain a boost. Senior citizens with mild cognitive impairment who drank a dairy-based cocoa flavanol drink for eight weeks showed a significant improvement in memory. Researchers believe flavanols may protect neurons from injury, improve the interaction of brain structures involved in memory, and increase blood flow.
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