Chocolate. The mere mention of it makes mouths water. Whether in a heart-shaped box, a rich three-layer cake, a warm, just-out-of-the-oven cookie, or a gooey candy bar, chocolate is the food Americans crave most often. Fortunately, in small doses, chocolate can be beneficial. It helps the heart and makes you feel good, so grab your favorite version and learn about the good, bad, and ugly of eating chocolate.

Magic Beans

Suitors and sweet-lovers alike have the humble cocoa tree to thank for chocolate. The botanical name of this tree, theobroma, is Greek for "food of the Gods." The pods of the tree hold the cocoa bean which was first roasted and enjoyed in Mayan and Aztec civilizations as a spicy drink. Eventually, the beans made it to Spain, where the cocoa bean was morphed into a whole assortment of treats.

Chocolate started out as a bitter tasting beverage and over the centuries evolved into the sweet treat we love. Now chocolate is solid, liquid, sweet, gooey, and sometimes bitter. The darker the chocolate, the more benefits you may get from it.

The Power of Chocolate

Evidence shows that chocolate may not be as sinful as traditionally believed. Take antioxidants for example. Dark chocolate contains relatively high levels of antioxidant flavanols and proanthocyanidins.

These elements prevent cellular damage in the body. They fight dangerous free radicals, but this has not always translated into better health. However, other research has shown promising benefits of chocolate for specific health conditions.

Some studies have found that chocolate may help reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems like heart attack and stroke. It may be the chocolates' flavanols that provide this benefit. Here are some other affects of chocolate may have on your heart and blood vessel health:

  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Lowers risk for heart failure
  • Improved blood flow
  • Increased HDL (good) cholesterol

Chocolate may also help your mental state.

Eating chocolate is often associated with pleasure and enjoyment. Chocolate contains certain chemicals which can improve moods and feelings. Using a brain imaging technique known as PET scan, scientists found that chocolate affects the same part of the brain as heroin or morphine. Chocolate has phenylethylamine, which act like amphetamines which are known to affect mood.

The antioxidants in cocoa powder have also been associated with decreased risk of dementia.

Chocolate may sound like the perfect cure-all, but as with everything else, you can have too much of a good thing.

The Dark Side of Chocolate

Chocolate is by no means as healthy as fruits or vegetables. Chocolate's antioxidants are delivered in a high-calorie, high-fat, fiber-free package. Here are some of other dangers that lurk when eating too much of a good thing:

Chocolate is a source of oxalate. Oxalate is a dietary element which inhibits calcium absorption from the gut and increases the elimination of calcium through urination. This decreases the body's ability to maintain bones, it may have more of an impact on older adults that have lower bone density. In fact, research has shown that in women aged 70 to 85 years, daily chocolate consumption was associated with lower bone density and strength compared to women who did not have daily chocolate.

Moderation

When it comes to eating and drinking, moderation is the key. Whether you do it for your heart or to improve your mood, a little chocolate goes a long way. Here are some smart ideas on how to enjoy a little chocolate in your diet:

  • Minimize—Often a small taste is all you need. Skip the two-pound bars and buy minibars (half-ounce or less) of chocolate. A half-ounce of milk chocolate, about the size of 3 Hershey Kisses, contains less than 80 calories and 5 grams of fat. In addition, choose good quality dark chocolate over other types; dark chocolate contains higher amounts of healthy antioxidants, like those found in red wine and green tea.
  • Try cocoa—Cocoa powder has most of the cocoa butter (the fatty part) removed. A tablespoon of cocoa can have as little as 20 calories and 0.5 grams of fat. Use cocoa instead of milk chocolate or baking chocolate in your cooking to give a chocolate flavor with less fat. Or, fix a warm mug of hot cocoa to soothe a craving.
  • Squirt some syrup—Top low-fat frozen yogurt or ice cream with chocolate-flavored syrup (made with cocoa). A tablespoon adds lots of flavor and as little as 50 calories and no fat.
  • Explore your options—Check the supermarket for chocolate-flavored products, including nonfat and low-fat chocolate pudding, chocolate-flavored rice cakes, frozen yogurt, and hot cocoa

Chocolate comes in many forms, so play around or stick with your favorite. Remember, the darker the chocolate, the better it is for you.