Chocolate lowers blood pressure and slashes risk of heart diseaseTuesday, April 06, 2010 by: S. L. Baker, features writer
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Researchers at the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Nuthetal, Germany, reached this conclusion after following 19,357 people between the ages of 35 and 65 for at least ten years and studying the research participants' chocolate consumption. The results? Research subjects who ate the most chocolate (on average, about 7.5 grams a day) had lower blood pressure. What's more, the risk of chocolate lovers having a heart attack or stroke was dramatically lowered, too.
"People who ate the most amount of chocolate were at a 39% lower risk than those with the lowest chocolate intakes," Dr Brian Buijsse, the nutritional epidemiologist who led the research, said in a press statement. "To put it in terms of absolute risk, if people in the group eating the least amount of chocolate (of whom 219 per 10,000 had a heart attack or stroke) increased their chocolate intake by six grams a day, 85 fewer heart attacks and strokes per 10,000 people could be expected to occur over a period of about ten years."
So what is it about chocolate that has such as profound impact on cardiovascular health? At first glance, chocolate's documented ability to lower blood pressure would appear to be the key. And, in fact, the scientists found lowered blood pressure due to chocolate consumption at the start of the study did explain for about 12% of the reduced risk of heart attacks and strokes. But they think something else is going on in the bodies of regular chocolate eaters, too, that accounts for the enormous drop in their heart attack risk.
One possibility, the researchers noted, is that phytochemicals known as flavanols that are abundant in cocoa (the main ingredient in chocolate) somehow protect the cardiovascular system. Because dark chocolate contains more cocoa -- and, therefore, more flavanols -- that would explain why dark chocolate has more health benefits than other varieties of chocolate.
"Flavanols appear to be the substances in cocoa that are responsible for improving the bioavailability of nitric oxide from the cells that line the inner wall of blood vessels -- vascular endothelial cells," Dr Buijsse explained. "Nitric oxide is a gas that, once released, causes the smooth muscle cells of the blood vessels to relax and widen; this may contribute to lower blood pressure. Nitric oxide also improves platelet function, making the blood less sticky, and makes the vascular endothelium less attractive for white blood cells to attach and stick around."
Does this mean it's a good idea to grab a chocolate flavored candy bar and scarf it down every day? Not at all. Commercial candy is made with refined sugar, often contains artificial flavorings and other non-healthy ingredients, and is loaded with calories. Instead, consider adding small amounts of plain dark chocolate to your daily diet.
"Basic science has demonstrated quite convincingly that dark chocolate particularly, with a cocoa content of at least 70%, reduces oxidative stress and improves vascular and platelet function. However, before you rush to add dark chocolate to your diet, be aware that 100g of dark chocolate contains roughly 500 calories. As such, you may want to subtract an equivalent amount of calories, by cutting back on other foods, to avoid weight gain," noted Frank Ruschitzka, Professor of Cardiology and Director of Heart Failure/Transplantation at the University Hospital Zurich, Switzerland, in a statement to the media.
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