The evidence is beginning to pile up. Chocolate, at least when it comes to the heart, might be as much of an essential part of a healthy diet as blueberries or broccoli. Eat a bit every day, and you will likely reap the health benefits. Ultimately, you will need to rely on your own judgment to gauge the amount of dark chocolate that is right for you.
You needn't let concern about the saturated fat in chocolate keep you from indulging -- at least not as far as your heart is concerned. The fat in chocolate consists of oleic acid and stearic acid. Oleic acid can actually help reduce the amount of "bad" LDL cholesterol in your blood, while stearic acid won't raise or lower your cholesterol, according to University of California researcher Mary Engler. Dark chocolate can raise "good" HDL cholesterol as well. On the other hand, the fat in chocolate is just as caloric as any other fat, and can pack on pounds quickly if not eaten in moderation.
It only took 30 calories of dark chocolate a day to lower the blood pressure of the participants in a 2006 study published in "The Journal of the American Medical Association." Participants consumed 6.3 g of polyphenol-rich dark chocolate for a period of 18 weeks and saw their systolic blood pressure decline by 2.9 points and their diastolic blood pressure decline by 1.9 points. This change occurred without changes in body weight or other relevant factors. White chocolate was also studied, and did not confer any benefits.
Blood Vessel Health
A 2003 University of California study found that people could eat one dark chocolate bar a week and reap arterial benefits. Study participants experienced an increase in arterial dilation, a marker for good cardiovascular health. Engler notes that the reason for this change is likely due to the flavonoids in dark chocolate. Milk chocolate will not provide as much benefit, as milk and extra sugar dilute its flavonoid potency.
While no general daily diet recommendation for dark chocolate intake exists, it is apparent that it takes very little to make a positive change in health. In the case of chocolate, it is unlikely that more is better, as the sugar and fat in most chocolate can lead to weight gain if not carefully monitored. To get the maximum benefits of chocolate for the fewest calories, eat dark chocolate bars that have a high percentage of cocoa. Choose chocolate that is at least 60 percent cocoa, and as you become accustomed to the flavor, gradually increase the percentage of the chocolate in your treats, easing up to bars that are 70, 80 or even 90 percent pure cocoa, sometimes spelled "cacao" on packaging.