Why This Neuroscientist Says We Should Eat More Chocolate
The heart and the brain are undoubtedly two of our body's most vital organs. Thankfully, taking care of one inadvertently tends to the other. One simple way to support our brain and our heart is by eating nutrient-dense foods—and no, it's not all fruits and veggies.
According to neuroscientist and neurodegenerative disease researcher Kristen Willeumier, Ph.D., dark chocolate is one of the most powerful functional foods we can add to our diet.
First of all, what's the heart-brain connection?
"When we think about our heart-brain connection, we think about our vasculature," Willeumier says. "We have 400 miles of blood vessels in our brain and 60,000 miles of blood vessels throughout the body. These two systems are absolutely linked."
Exercise, stress management, and, of course, diet, can all play a role in protecting the brain and the heart. One of Willeumier's favorites is dark chocolate.
The heart-brain benefits of dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, called polyphenols, which provide anti-inflammatory effects1 in both the body and the brain. "It can cross the blood-brain barrier and help protect the neurons in the brain," she tells mbg.
The flavonoids in dark chocolate also induce the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is a protein responsible for neurogenesis. In other words, eating dark chocolate can trigger chemical reactions in the brain that help to grow new brain cells. Not just any brain cells, though.
According to Willeumier, the growth occurs in "an area of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory." That's why chocolate may reduce the risk of developing cognitive decline or Alzheimer's disease2.
"The other great thing about dark chocolate is it helps to release nitric oxide," she adds, "which increases vasodilation and ensures there's an abundant supply of oxygen-rich blood flow to the brain." Through this mechanism, eating dark chocolate can help lower blood pressure3.
"I've had patients who were completely shocked by how much their blood pressure dropped when they were doing daily dark chocolate," Willeumier tells mbg.
How to enjoy dark chocolate.
Dark chocolate tends to be low in sugar, so it can satisfy chocolate cravings without significantly altering blood sugar levels. Incorporating it into your daily diet is simple (but you probably don't need us to tell you that).
Here are just a few ways to enjoy it:
- Eat a square of dark chocolate.
- Add a scoop of cacao powder to a smoothie or oatmeal.
- Sprinkle cacao nibs onto a smoothie bowl or oatmeal.
- Eat dark chocolate on toast for breakfast.
- Make dark chocolate truffles.
Next time you enjoy your chocolate, know that you're doing something good for your heart and your brain.
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.