Chocolate is one of the more fascinating foods in existence. Humans have enjoyed it as a tasty treat in many different forms for thousands of years, and according to the California Academy of Sciences, Americans consume around 12 pounds of chocolate per person annually. While it’s typically thought of as a relatively unhealthy food to be eaten sparingly, studies that reveal some of chocolate’s healthy benefits seem to keep popping up.
Past studies have shown that chocolate might be able to lower stroke risk, protect your skin from UV rays, boost vision and improve brain function. We’ve even reported how it could lower BMI. Many of these studies have to do with the fact that dark chocolate is a good source of antioxidants. Now, a small study reports that chocolate could also improve vascular health – as long as the chocolate is dark.
Details of the Study
The study, conducted by Sapienza University in Rome, included 20 participants who all suffered from peripheral artery disease (PAD). PAD impairs blood flow to the limbs, causing cramps and making exercise and walking very difficult. The participants included six women and 14 men whose ages averaged in the late 60s, and they were directed to walk on a treadmill for as long as they could. The treadmill speed was about 2.2 mph and the grade was 12 percent.
Next, half of the participants were given milk chocolate and the other half were given dark chocolate. Each person received 40 grams of chocolate total, but the dark chocolate contained 85 percent cocoa while the milk chocolate had under 30 percent. The treadmill test was then repeated. While those who consumed the milk chocolate experienced no change from their initial results, the people who ate dark chocolate could walk 39 feet farther and around 17 seconds longer than their first trial. This was an average 11 percent gain in distance walked.
Is Dark Chocolate Really the Answer?
It’s thought that cocoa’s high concentration of polyphenols – a compound known to help with inflammation – is responsible for reducing oxidative stress and helping the body create nitric oxide, which causes the dilation of blood vessels. While the scientific community has widely agreed that the study is valid and important, it’s also true that the relatively small increase in walking ability really wouldn’t be worth the weight gain that would be caused by using dark chocolate as a health supplement.
In Western countries, around twenty percent of people aged 70 and older suffer from PAD. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, PAD patients need to make lifestyle changes such as:
- Taking part in a supervised exercise program
- Quitting smoking
- Eating a diet low in fat, cholesterol and sodium
- Lowering blood pressure
Consuming too much dark chocolate could be in direct opposition to some of these strategies, especially if the patient has diabetes. Without taking action, PAD sufferers can have a higher risk of gangrene and heart conditions, not to mention a generally low quality of life. Also, PAD can necessitate surgeries such as bypasses, angioplasties and even amputations in extreme cases.
Dark Chocolate for PAD: The Bottom Line
While the discovery that dark chocolate can increase blood flow is generally a good thing, further study will be needed to determine exactly how the chemicals in the confection are having the positive effect. For now, it’s not advised that people with vascular diseases begin increasing their intake of dark chocolate. PAD sufferers should continue to work with their doctor for treatment until the power of dark chocolate can be harnessed without actually having to consume large amounts of it.
Read the full study from the Journal of the American Heart association here.