There’s just one problem.
While there are numerous studies suggesting that chocolate may be good for our cardiovascular health, they’re based on very low quality evidence. There are observational studies, for example, which give us clues, but can’t definitively show that one thing (chocolate) caused the result (a small drop in heart problems).
There are also randomized controlled trials (RCTs), which are more sound, but an awful lot of them were funded by organizations with names like Mars and Nestle, many use cocoa flavonoid concoctions instead of what we can buy in the grocery store, and they tend to be short, so they can see changes like lower blood pressure, for example, but not show that it actually leads to fewer blocked arteries, because that takes so much longer to develop. (And with a calorie-dense food like chocolate, we can’t just assume lower blood pressure will mean fewer heart attacks.)
So it might benefit heart health, in reasonable amounts, and it doesn’t seem to hurt. It’s just that the evidence isn’t that strong.
This might be a good time for a reminder that you can eat something just because you enjoy it.
And just for fun, if you really want to make sure your chocolate is “heart-healthy,” here are a few ideas for how to eat it:
I don’t mean “mind your manners” mindfully, or “watch how much you eat” mindfully. I mean push the pause button on your busy day and sit down and actually savour what you’re eating for a just few short minutes. (Note to self.)
I mean really experience it, using all of your senses. See if you can discern an odour. Listen to how it sounds when you bite off a chunk. Let it melt slowly in your mouth before chewing. Really taste it.
Can we make a case that this popular mindful eating exercise is heart-healthy? Sure: So often we eat in a frenzied blur, taking little enjoyment from our food, and quite possibly overeat as a result. Relaxation and satisfaction can be powerful tools in the quest for heart-healthier eating.
2. Without guilt.
I like to say that a heart-healthy diet is one that doesn’t stress you out. So if you’re beating yourself up for slipping from your perfectly sugar/carb/joy-free diet, is that heart-healthy? A little self-compassion goes a long way. So if you enjoy chocolate, when you eat it, really enjoy it. The guilt isn’t doing you any good anyhow.
It may help to know that the authors of one of the biggest chocolate / heart health studies finished by saying, “There does not appear to be any evidence to say that chocolate should be avoided in those who are concerned about cardiovascular risk.” Yay!
3. With someone you love.
The value of connection cannot be overstated, but it seems to be a low priority in our busy lives. So yes, chocolate might lower your blood pressure (a little), but meeting a friend or family member for a chocolate date? Priceless. Who’s in?
4. After a brisk walk.
Is there a chocolate shop you can walk to? Can you at least drive partway? Or can you bring chocolate along on a hike? Hello, homemade trail mix.
We’re not trying to burn off the chocolate calories here. I’m just having a little fun with the fact that the evidence for being out in nature, walking, and exercise in general, is much more sound than the evidence for chocolate. So combine them!
5. With strawberries. Or nuts. Or strawberries and nuts.
These classic culinary combinations are a win-win: Delicious and nutritious. Why not pair foods with more solidly-proven health benefits alongside the dark delicacy?
Or try cocoa-dusted almonds. (If you follow me on Facebook and Instagram, you might have seen me ask this week where I can buy them. My sister-in-law chimed in with a recipe, and Jen Rawson, a local cardiac rehab dietitian, advised me that they’re also sold at Bulk Barn.
If you’re more up for store-bought, Bark Thins* are great. Or chocolate-covered almonds are a treat.
Just watch when you’re buying something “healthy” covered in chocolate that they aren’t trying to fool you. Case in point: What looks like chocolate-covered blueberries and acai berries at Costco are really just expensive chocolate covered blueberry and acai-flavoured candy.
6. At a “crappy chocolate tasting.”
I’m not suggesting you go in for some “crappy” aka low-quality chocolate. Rather I’m adapting the brilliant concept of a “crappy dinner party,” I read about on The Kitchn a couple of years ago.
The idea is to see your friends and neighbours more often by making dinner parties easier: No cleaning the house first. Don’t change your clothes. No hostess gifts. No special trip to the store.
So if a dinner party is too much work, how about a similarly “crappy” chocolate tasting? Someone will have to violate the rules and pick up a few interesting bars, but the connecting and community building that comes with a little tea and chocolate tasting will be worth it.
7. As dark as you like. Or not.
I say eat chocolate you like. If you like dark chocolate, great. Yes, it probably has more antioxidants and less sugar and that’s probably a little better for your health. Maybe. A little.
But seriously, if you don’t enjoy dark chocolate, don’t sweat it. The difference to real health outcomes is likely minimal (I’m not aware of any studies comparing milk and dark chocolate for long-term heart disease outcomes, so this is all theoretical).
There are so many more things you can do for heart health, so if you hate dark chocolate, please don’t feel you have to eat it. Life is short.
The point is to recognize that instead of stressing over the healthfulness of any particular food or nutrient, it’s probably more useful to zoom out and remember that our overall pattern of eating and living, plus a whole lot of factors outside of our control, is what really affects heart health.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
* I like to mention specific products, so it’s easier for you to know what I’m talking about. These references are never paid for. I don’t do sponsored posts or other work for the food industry, so you can be sure you’re getting independent advice.