The health benefits of dark chocolate

Dark chocolate: the indulgent treat for a healthy heart?
Dark chocolate: the indulgent treat for a healthy heart?

Most of us love a bit of chocolate every now and then. Many of us love it even more than that.

But chocolate doesn't have to be your guilty secret. Tucking into a square or two of good quality dark chocolate every now and then does have its health benefits.

Remember, though, that despite its healthy credentials, even dark chocolate can be high in fat and calories (a medium-sized bar can contain up to 250 calories), so watch your portion sizes to get the most from your healthy treat.

Try to aim for chocolate with 70% cocoa solids and no added vegetable fats, and opt for flavourings of nuts and peel rather than caramel and nougat. Another good thing about choosing dark chocolate over milk, is that its stronger, bitter taste means you won't need - or be tempted to - eat so much. Win-win!

Eleven reasons to feel good about eating dark chocolate:

1. Chocolate can help prevent heart disease: A nine-year Swedish study of over 31,000 women found those who ate one to two servings of dark chocolate a week cut their risk of cardiovascular disease by a third. This is thought to be due to its anti-inflammatory properties as well as the fact it contains high levels of flavonoids which enhance nitric oxide production.

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2. Chocolate can help ward off cancer: High levels of the antioxidant polyphenol found in dark chocolate can lessen the damage caused by free radicals; biochemists at London's King's College say you would need to drink 17 glasses of orange juice to get the same benefits as 50 grams of dark chocolate.

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3. Chocolate can aid weight loss: Yes, really! The high fibre content of dark chocolate makes it more filling and satisfying than milk choc, meaning you're less likely to crave fatty, calorific foods.

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4. Eat chocolate to relax: A Swiss study (natch!) found that eating 40g of dark chocolate every day significantly reduces your levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

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5. Eat choc to increase your sun protection: Research carried out in London found people who ate choc with high levels of flavonoids for three months, took twice as long for their skin to redden when exposed to UV compared to those who ate none.

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6. Chocolate consumotion could help control diabetes: As nitric oxide (levels are enhanced by flavonoids which occur in chocolate) helps to control insulin sensitivity, regular chocolate munching can cut the onset of insulin resistance by half.

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7. Chocolate enhances concentration: Very dark chocolate is thought to cause an increase in blood flow to certain parts of the brain, boosting alertness and performance for up to three hours.

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8. Chocolate as cough medicine: Dark chocolate is rich in theobromine, which suppresses the activity of the cough-causing vagus nerve as effectively as codeine - but without any of the drowsy side effects.

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9. Eating chocolate cheers you up: By boosting serotonin (the happy hormone) levels in your brain, that sneaky afternoon chocolate break really will make you feel happier.

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10. Chocolate boosts blood flow: The anti-clotting, blood-thinning properties of dark chocolate have been shown to aid circulation and improve blood flow.

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11. Chocolate can improve your vision: Research carried out by the University of Reading suggests that increased blood to the brain caused by eating dark chocolate may also improve flow to the retina, helping you to see more clearly.

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