The Health Benefits of Chocolate

If you think you're addicted to chocolate because of its taste, that's only part of the story. Consuming chocolate …If you're like most of us, it's hard to resist the bittersweet goodness that is dark chocolate. And with Easter coming up, you certainly won't be able to keep yourself from indulging in a bite or two. Chocolate has long suffered from a bad rep, but emerging research has shown that there are significant health benefits to consuming small amounts. If you're feeling bad about your craving, check out what dark chocolate can do for you:

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Lowers Blood Pressure. According to a study from Harvard, cocoa consumption is associated with lower blood pressure and improved blood vessel health. The study found that dark chocolate containing at least 50 to 70 percent cocoa lowered blood pressure in all participants, especially those with hypertension. The health benefits are likely due to polyphenolic flavonoids in cocoa that have the potential to prevent certain heart problems. To get the benefit, eat small amounts (one square) of dark chocolate that is at least 70 percent cocoa.

Lowers Heart Disease Risk. The natural elements found in chocolate can help keep your cholesterol level down, which lowers your risk of heart attack and stroke. According to one Harvard study, people who ate dark chocolate at least once a week were nearly a quarter less likely to have a stroke than those who didn't eat any. In a separate study, women who ate one or two servings of dark chocolate every week lowered their risk of having heart failure by over 30 percent.

Aids In Weight Loss. According to a recent study, those who regularly consume chocolate tend to have lower body mass indexes (BMIs) than people who eat it less frequently. The researchers believe that the antioxidants found in chocolate may help speed up the metabolism. But be warned: this effect only holds true for people who eat small amounts of chocolate often, as opposed to large amounts at one time. Eating a couple squares of dark chocolate each day, for example, is much better for you than eating several pieces of chocolate cake in one sitting.

Lifts Your Mood. You may have noticed that chocolate can make you feel happier, and there's actually scientific reasons to support that. Chocolate contains phenethylamine, which causes your brain to release endorphins. Phenethylamine is the neurochemical that is released when people fall in love, and is associated with sexual pleasure. Additionally, chocolate increases levels of serotonin, a mood-elevating neurotransmitter.

Boosts Energy. Eating small amounts of dark chocolate before you work out can help you exercise more productively. Researchers think that this has to do with epicatechin, cacao's primary nutritional ingredient. Epicatechin is a flavonol, a molecule that is believed to have significant effects on the body. Just make sure not to have more than a square or two, or else it could increase your level of fatigue during your workout.

Lowers Stress. Consuming an ounce or two of dark chocolate each day could lower the level of stress hormones in your body, according to a scientific study from Sweden. The participants in the study were anxious individuals who were told to eat one and a half ounces of dark chocolate every day for two weeks. After the study period, they found that their stress hormone levels were lower than when the study began.

Increases Skin Health. The darker the chocolate, the healthier it is for your skin. According to a study published in the "Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology," regular consumption of dark chocolate increases your skin's natural UV protection. As the percentage of cacao goes up, so do the number of antioxidants.

Boosts Brain Power. As if all that weren't enough to convince you to head for that dark chocolate bar, studies have also shown that chocolate has positive effects on the brain. One study found that drinking cocoa rich in flavonols increased blood flow to key parts of the brain for several hours, improving short-term focus and performance. Chocolate can also have potential long-term benefits on brain power. A study conducted by researchers at Oxford University found that people who regularly ate dark chocolate scored much higher on cognitive tests than others.