I confess I’m a Valentine’s Day sap – I love the flowers, cards and the chocolate! There’s nothing more enjoyable than the chocolate on V-Day. Whether you’re single, wishing you weren’t single, crazy in love or crazy over an ex: there’s some mystical power that chocolate has over us. After all, chocolate has been around for a long time – offered to the gods and served at sacred ceremonies in both Maya and Aztec civilizations. While it is OK to be a chocolate lover on Valentine’s Day, these indulgences should not carry over for the rest of the year…or should they? February is Heart Month. Taking care of your heart means three simple things – no smoking, eating five fruits and vegetables per day, enjoying a minimum 30 minutes of exercise per day and last but not least perhaps a bite of chocolate every week, too.
Research suggests that a little chocolate may actually be beneficial to your heart. The cocoa bean is rich in a class of plant nutrients called flavonoids. Flavonoids are very helpful in plants to protect them from environmental toxins and help repair damage. Fruits and vegetables are the highest in flavonoids, which have “antioxidant” power. This means they help the body’s cells resist damage and also protect the artery walls from plaque buildup caused from low-density lipoprotein (LDL), also known as “bad” cholesterol.
But, before you grab a chocolate candy bar or slice of that chocolate cake, it’s important to understand that not all forms of chocolate contain high levels of flavanols. Cocoa naturally has a very strong, pungent taste, which comes from the flavanols. When cocoa is processed into your favorite chocolate products, it goes through several steps to reduce this taste. The more chocolate is processed (through things like fermentation, alkalizing, roasting, etc.) the more flavanols are lost.
Most commercial chocolates are highly processed. Although it was once believed that dark chocolate contained the highest levels of flavanols, it really depends on how the dark chocolate was processed. The good news is that the better chocolate manufacturers are looking for ways to keep the flavanols in their process when they make chocolates. Your best choice for the maximum flavanols is still dark chocolate over milk chocolate.
The fat in chocolate comes from cocoa butter and is made up of three equal amounts of oleic acid (a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat also found in olive oil), stearic and palmitic acids. Stearic and palmitic acids are forms of saturated fat. Saturated fats are linked to increases in LDL cholesterol. New research shows that stearic acid appears to have a neutral effect on cholesterol, neither raising nor lowering it. However, palmitic acid does affect cholesterol levels, so 2/3 of the fat in chocolate does not raise cholesterol. In fact, some studies how evidence that dark chocolate actually lowers cholesterol, so eat dark chocolate, and on special occasions like Valentine’s Day…eat what your heart tells you.
When you’re not enjoying a special day, I recommend moderate portions of chocolate (e.g. 1 ounce) a few times per week, and remember to eat other flavonoid-rich foods like apples, red wine, tea, onions and cranberries.
For more information on Hearth Healthy Diets Made Easy, join me from 6:00-7:30 p.m. February 22 at Pilgrims Market for a free interactive seminar. I may even share samples of my favorite chocolate…www.Chocoperfection.com!
Kootenai Hearth Center’s will be conducting low-cost Hearth to Heart screenings (cholesterol, HDL< LDL, triglycerides and glucose levels) for the month of February. Call (208) 666-2083 for an appointment. Screenings will be held in the Hearth Center lobby, next to Kootenai Medical Center’s Emergency Department.