4 Big Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate

4 big health benefits of dark chocolate

No, we aren't joking, dark chocolate is now considered a new member of the superfoods club, and a perfect pre-gym snack.

WITH EASTER FAST APPROACHING, that means two things, a long weekend and overindulgence in chocolate. Up there with kale or bok choy, you’ve likely heard that the variation of dark chocolate is referred to as a ‘superfood’. I know, it is an exciting find for those who love a choccy snack from time to time. However, research backs up the claim and has shown it can improve both heart health and blood pressure, likely due to anti-inflammatory and antioxidant content, and even improve mood and reduce the risk of chronic disease.

Most experts credit the health benefits to chemical compounds called polyphenols, specifically flavonoids, plant compounds that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, explains Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., a Denver-based dietitian and author of Skinny Liver.

But dark chocolate’s superfood status is likely a bit overblown, says Alan Aragon, M.S.Men’s Health nutrition advisor. “Dark chocolate just happens to have beneficial compounds that favourably influence various health parameters when consumed judiciously.” In this case, judiciously means this: consume in moderation. Since chocolate is energy-dense (read: it’s got 150 to 170 calories per 30g), scarf it down indiscriminately and you’ll easily wind up taking down excess calories and weighing down the scale, he notes.

Want to snack the right way? Look for dark chocolate with a cocoa content of at least 70 per cent – though the higher the better, Kirkpatrick says. (Any less and you’re likely dealing with a mix of cream and other add-ins, she says.)

Then, know what kinds of benefits you’re biting into – starting with these three biggies.

Dark chocolate gives you a magnesium boost

Did you know up to 68 per cent of people might not get the proper amounts of magnesium, an important player in over 300 bodily processes? Dark chocolate is a solid source of the mineral, says Aragon. About 100g of dark chocolate, packs about 228 mg magnesium, putting you well on your way to the 400 mg recommended a day.

Dark chocolate is a great pre-workout snack

Normally, you wouldn’t think of eating candy before hitting the gym but celebrity trainers Ryan and Eric Johnson, brothers who work with Scarlett Johansson among other stars, advocate nibbling on a little dark chocolate before exercising.

The pair explained to INSIDER that because dark chocolate releases dopamine in your brain, linked to pleasure and the reward system, you’ll actually look forward to those early morning workouts if you nibble some chocolate first.

“It creates this positive feedback loop with your brain — now that you’re getting this piece of chocolate before your workout you’re creating a positive association with your training session and you’re getting more excited to get to the gym… you have something to look forward to,” Ryan told the outlet.

Some research even suggests that eating chocolate could make you perform better, too. In 2011, researchers found that mice given epicatechin, a flavonoid found in cacao, were able to run for longer distances compared to mice who didn’t receive any of the ingredient.

Of course, it’s best not to overdo it: The Johnsons recommend eating only two to three pieces, or 30-50 grams of chocolate INSIDER reports.

Quality matters too, according to Dr. Francisco Villarreal, co-author of the 2011 epicatechin study. He explained to The New York Times that heavily processed chocolates have barely any epicatechin, so you’ll want to swap out that milk chocolate for dark.

Dark chocolate helps your heart

Your workouts get your heart pumping, but thanks to anti-inflammatory and blood pressure-improving effects of flavonols—a type of flavonoid – in dark chocolate, the candy could help improve heart health, says Kirkpatrick.

One study of healthy guys who ate a little less than 0.5 g of a cocoa flavonol twice a day for two weeks saw increased blood vessel functioning, decreased blood pressure, and improved cholesterol levels. That same study also found these men were at a lower risk of developing heart disease, having a heart attack, or dying from either one.

You brain could benefit from dark chocolate

Flavonols are incredibly good for brain health. They could enhance brain cell functioning, protect vulnerable brain cells, and even stimulate brain cell regeneration, perhaps by bolstering the effect of protective proteins, according to a review published in Frontiers in Nutrition.

The result: you’ll likely be able to pay better attention, think faster, and see improvements in memory, according to the study.

But these benefits could have an even bigger impact: Flavonoids found in dark chocolate may someday be useful in potentially treating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. One study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found an association between eating chocolate and reduced risk of cognitive decline, perhaps due to protective effects of the cocoa flavonols.

This story originally appeared on Men’s Health U.S.

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