Chocoholics celebrate any time a new study touts the health benefits of the sweet treat. (You mean chowing down on a candy bar can help my heart?) But there’s a reason doctors aren’t telling patients to go to the nearest store and pick up some Hershey’s Kisses. When it comes to your health, chocolate is a bit of a mixed bag: It’s packed with antioxidants, but many varieties also include a substantial amount of sugar. So we dove right into the
chocolate fountain scientific research to outline the pros and cons of indulging your next craving.
The Sweet Spot
Most of the health benefits of chocolate come from cacao, specifically the flavonoids in cacao. They're responsible for chocolate's distinct taste, and they may protect your body from a number of diseases, including asthma, diabetes, and some types of cancer. Thanks to flavonoids, scientists have linked cacao consumption (a.k.a. eating chocolate) to the following health benefits:
1. It can strengthen your heart.
Dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure and improve blood flow, two important aspects of having a healthy heart. In one cool study, when scuba divers ate dark chocolate before their dive, their blood flow actually increased (as opposed to normal divers, whose blood flow decreased) after they came back up to the surface.
2. It can slow memory loss.
Honey, where are my keys? In your pocket, dear. As we get older, we seem to become more forgetful. But an exciting study found cocoa flavonoids could help put the brakes on age-related memory loss—the normal lapses you have from time to time, not the more serious gaps that happen with Alzheimer's.
3. It can help you cope with stress.
We've all done it: When the going gets tough, we turn to chocolate to make us feel better. And turns out, binging on chocolate when we're feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious may not be so bad after all. One study found that cacao can actually help to regulate your stress so go ahead and refill your stash (with dark chocolate).
4. It can reduce your risk of diabetes.
Before we get carried away, let's remember that some store-bought chocolates have tons of added sugar and processed ingredients so they aren't helping anything. But the polyphenols in high-quality cocoa can help regulate your blood sugar by improving insulin resistance, which ultimately lowers your risk of diabetes.
5. It can help you get a move on.
Pregnant mamas, when you want to feel your baby move around in the womb, eat some chocolate. He or she will be doing a little two-step in your tummy because studies show that babies move more after the mother eats the sweet stuff.
The Bitter(sweet) Truth
There's one major caveat when talking about the benefits of cacao: Not all chocolate is created equal. Extensive processing, as well as the added sugar and dairy in milk chocolate, can strip cacao of its nutritional benefits. So before you run out to stock your cabinets with chocolate, make sure you're aware of these potential health risks:
1. It can be addictive.
Chocolate can be hard to put down—it contains some addictive compounds but it's also so delicious that we want to keep eating more. One study found it was the most addictive foods for teens but Americans as a whole consume nine and a half pounds of it every year. As with everything, moderation is key—so do your best to limit your intake in one sitting.
2. It may be bad for your skin.
If you're prone to acne, loading up on chocolate may make matters worse, thanks to the high-fat content of most milk and white chocolate. But chocolate probably isn't the culprit if you break out on your period (even if you eat said chocolate during that time of the month). In that case, a drop in estrogen pumps up oil production, which leads to extra pimples.
3. It can cause kidney stones.
Before you get too scared of the chocolate Kiss that's in your pocket just waiting to be unwrapped, this is only for those at risk for developing kidney stones. So if you're one of those people, be on the lookout because chocolate contains oxalates, which have been linked to kidney stones.
4. It can make you anxious.
If you eat enough chocolate (we're talking at least 5 cups of most varieties), you can get an energy boost. But you may also have to deal with the negative buzz-related side effects, like anxiety, dehydration, diarrhea, irritability, and nervousness. We say that can happen anytime we binge too heavily on one thing, so just keep it in check and hopefully the controlled amount will help you de-stress instead of freak out.
The Bottom Line
These are just a few of the literally hundreds of studies on chocolate—and since they fall all over the map (It's good! It's bad! It's meh!), there's little we can definitively conclude.
That said, most pro-chocolate research says you should opt for dark over milk or white if you have the choice (and you're trying to be healthy). Look for dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao—the higher, the better. Cacao nibs are also on the healthier side of the chocolate spectrum. And at the end of the day, regardless of the study, chocolate is best eaten in moderation.
Originally published July 2012. Updated February 2017.