Chocolate: Secret Weapon in the Cholesterol Battle

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Chocolate MilkChocolate has a long and storied history. The Mayans and Aztecs believed that cocoa had health and mystical powers, including fertility, strength, knowledge, heart health and even aphrodisiac properties.

Cocoa even had religious importance for the Aztecs, with the story of Quetzalcoatl, a deity who came from heaven on the beam of the morning star, bringing with him a cocoa tree he stole from heaven. Perhaps this is why the Aztecs frequently referred to chocolate as the “food of the gods.”

In modern times, we continue to put chocolate on a pedestal so to speak. What Valentine’s Day would be complete without a heart-shaped box filled with chocolate confections? And what bad day cannot be brightened just a bit with a bite (or two or three) of your favorite chocolate bar?

In fact, I don’t think anyone would argue that chocolate isn’t good for the soul. But did you know that it is good for your heart? And not in an “I love you” sense, but actually good for your cardiovascular system!

Chocolate and Your Heart

One of the biggest benefits of cocoa is its antioxidant properties. Thanks to its high concentration of flavonoids, compounds found in thousands of plant-based foods, chocolate has a rather impressive ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) score.

ORAC is a commonly accepted measure of the antioxidant potential of a food. Some of the more recognized high-ORAC foods include blueberries and green tea. But chocolate outshines them all.

Chocolate boasts an impressive ORAC of 13,120 per 100 grams, as compared to blueberries (2,400 per 100 grams). Plus, it beats green tea four times over, and just two tablespoons of cocoa powder has double the ORAC of a 140 mL glass of red wine.[1]

It is cocoa’s flavonoids that give it this antioxidant boost. Plus, cocoa has one of the highest concentrations of magnesium of any food. In addition to building bone and relaxing muscles, this mineral is a critical component of heart health.

For nearly three decades, researchers have been fascinated with heart-health benefits of cocoa. Whether you are talking about basic heart health,[2] lowering blood pressure levels,[3] or even preventing blood clots,[4] chocolate seems to be a cardiologist’s dream.

But what about cholesterol? According to a new study from Spain, cocoa is still the answer.

Chocolate Milk Isn’t Just for Kids

Armed with the knowledge that cocoa-containing foods offer cardiovascular protection, a team of Spanish researchers set out to determine if regular consumption of cocoa could benefit high-risk adults.[5]

Forty-two people participated in the study, averaging 69 to 70 years of age. They all had several risk factors for heart disease. Half of the participants had diabetes, 78 percent had high blood pressure, 83 percent were either overweight or obese (with a BMI of 25 or greater), and 61 percent had cholesterol problems.

Researchers divided the participants into two groups. The first group received two packets of cocoa powder each day. Each packet contained 20 grams of cocoa powder, which they mixed into 250 mL of skim milk (about one cup). They drank one glass for breakfast and the second either as an afternoon snack or after dinner every day for two weeks. The second group followed the same schedule, but with plain skim milk. After two weeks, the groups switched. The first group drank plain skim milk for an additional two weeks, while the second group drank their milk with the two packets of cocoa.

After four weeks, researchers found that 67 percent of participants saw an increase in HDL (or “good”) cholesterol, as well as a decrease in oxidized LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol. Specifically, there was an average five percent increase in HDL and an impressive 14 percent decrease in oxidized LDL.

This is a huge boon for heart health for two reasons. First, HDL’s job is to remove cholesterol from your arteries and carry it to the liver, where it is either scheduled for removal or use (like making hormones). Hence the reason HDL is called “good cholesterol.”

The second reason these findings are impressive has to do with reducing oxidized LDL. See, despite what we’ve been told, cholesterol per se is not the issue. It’s the oxidation of cholesterol that causes problems.

Let me illustrate. Imagine you are making a fruit salad. Perhaps you know the chef’s trick of sprinkling a little lemon or lime juice over the fruit to keep it from turning brown. That “browning” is oxidation. Before the fruit turns brown, it’s perfectly fine and delicious. But once it browns, due to oxidation, it’s less desirable.

It’s the same with cholesterol. Plain, old cholesterol is fine. But, once oxidation occurs, that cholesterol “goes bad.” So anything that reduces oxidized cholesterol is a good thing.

It’s also important to note that the people used in this study were NOT healthy participants. The vast majority were significantly overweight, and had diabetes, blood pressure AND cholesterol issues. Plus, more than half took ACE inhibitors (for blood pressure), statin drugs (for cholesterol), and/or oral diabetes drugs. And still the chocolate milk helped!

For all these reasons, the researchers concluded that “the findings of this work indicate that the consumption of cocoa polyphenols may contribute to an increase in HDL [cholesterol] and that this increase, together with the antioxidant protection of polyphenols incorporated into LDL particles, may reduce the levels of [oxidized] LDL.”

Now that’s a finding we can all get behind!

Think Cocoa, Not Chocolate

One thing to keep in mind with this study is that they used cocoa powder. Not a Snickers bar, not hot chocolate … cocoa.

So, when looking to get these same results, think unsweetened cocoa powder. That way you avoid the sugar/fat trap of the traditional chocolate bar while still reaping all the benefits of the cocoa. 

There are lots of ways to use cocoa powder. You can add to a smoothie; stir into plain, unsweetened yogurt; or even whip up some healthy hot chocolate. To do this, heat up one cup (8 ounces) of skim milk (or any healthy milk alternative) and add in 1.5 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder and one packet of no-calorie natural sweetener stevia. Mix well and enjoy!

[1] Lee, KW et al. Cocoa has more phenolic phytochemcials and a higher antioxidant capacity than teas and red wine. J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Dec 3;51(25):7292-5.

[2] Janszky, I et al. Chocolate consumption and mortality following a first acute myocardial infarction: the Stockholm Heart Epidemiology Program. J Intern Med. 2009 Sept;266(3):248-57.

[3] Taubert, D et al.  Chocolate and blood pressure in elderly individuals with isolated systolic hypertension. JAMA. 2003 Aug 27;290(8):1029-30.

[4] Innes, AJ et al. Dark chocolate inhibits platelet aggregation in healthy volunteers. Platelets. 2003 Aug;14(5):325-7.

[5] Khan, N et al. Regular consumption of cocoa powder with milk increases HDL cholesterol and reduces oxidized LDL levels in subjects at high-risk of cardiovascular disease. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2001 May 5. [Epub ahead of print].

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