How Much Chocolate Can Support Your Cardiovascular Health? A New Study Investigates
It's widely known that a varied diet of fruits and vegetables offers the most nutritional benefits to the body. But what if chocolate was just as good for you—even supporting your cardiovascular health?
Well, we all know that it's important to care for your heart through employing positive habits like working out and eating a balanced diet. Yet even so, atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) is a major cause of death in U.S. adults each year.
Posing the question of whether chocolate, or more specifically cocoa, could have any real health benefits, a recent 3.6-year study1 published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that while consuming cocoa extract supplements did not eliminate or significantly reduce the occurrences of cardiovascular issues, it did lower the death rates by 27%.
How the study worked.
First off, it's important to know exactly what chocolate or cocoa has to offer to your cardiovascular well-being. Put simply, cocoa supplements contain a naturally occurring compound called flavanols, also often found in berries and kale. Flavanols have proved to be useful in supporting healthy circulation, lowering blood pressure, and even fighting off cellular damage.
This study worked specifically with cocoa supplementation and not chocolate bars or general drugstore candy—so no, a big bar of chocolate a day will not necessarily keep the doctor away.
Throughout the study, the 21,442 participants took two capsules of cocoa flavanol each day for nearly two years. On top of this, some participants were assigned to take additional multivitamins or a placebo, and the study reached out for follow-up at the six- and 12-month marks. This process also took into account outside health concerns, lifestyle, and sociodemographic factors so that participants were at similar starting points at the beginning of the study.
The study found that participants taking cocoa extract supplements did experience a significant reduction in cardiovascular death, although they were still at risk for cardiovascular occurrences such as a heart attack, stroke, or carotid artery disease.
How much chocolate would be needed to support heart health?
Unfortunately for milk chocolate lovers, this highly processed option is not the healthy cocoa the study refers to for heart support. In fact, it would take about 50 servings of milk chocolate to help you reach the flavanol content of the cocoa extract supplements. Needless to say, that's not great for your health when you're considering sugar intake.
As for dark chocolate, 30 grams contains about 57 milligrams of flavanols in comparison to the supplement, which contains about 50 milligrams per gram...so 10 servings of dark chocolate each day would be what you need to reap the benefits found in this study. Spoiler: That's not super healthy, either.
One of the primary limitations of this study is the wide range of cardiovascular issues it considers. The authors acknowledge that instead of looking at the broad number of cardiovascular concerns the body could experience, a clearer picture may be painted in narrowing in on heart attack, stroke, and cardiovascular disease.
Additionally, the cocoa extract supplement that was tested included a number of natural bioactive components available in cocoa, and the authors note that it's difficult to separate which may be responsible for the positive impact on the heart outside of flavanols.
Racial and ethnic diversity was also "modest" in this study, so testing the benefit of cocoa on a greater scale of participants may clarify how wide-reaching the effects may be.
How you can support cardiovascular wellness.
Thankfully, there are a variety of ways you can care for and support your cardiovascular well-being to keep your health in check. Some of the tried-and-true ways you can make sure you're staying healthy are:
- Prioritize sleep
- Take an omega-3 supplement
- Keep drinking your daily coffee (really!)
- Start strength training
As much as we would love chocolate to be the answer to our health problems, the supplementation of cocoa extract showed no significant reduction in the likelihood of experiencing cardiovascular issues. That being said, the study did reveal that it may reduce the severity of heart concerns, lowering the likelihood of death by 27%.
That said, while your nightly dark chocolate fix may not be a magic pill for cardiovascular health, experts are still fans of the treat (especially raw cacao) for a number of benefits that span from gut to brain health. If you're looking for a healthy chocolatey dessert, look no further than this three-ingredient chocolate truffle recipe.
Merrell Readman is the Associate Food & Health Editor at mindbodygreen. Readman is a Fordham University graduate with a degree in journalism and a minor in film and television. She has covered beauty, health, and well-being throughout her editorial career, and formerly worked at SheFinds. Her byline has also appeared in Women’s Health. In her current role, she writes and edits for the health, movement, and food sections of mindbodygreen. Readman currently lives in New York City.