Last updated: March 19. 2014 9:00PM - 973 Views

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We’ve all been there. Staring at that decadent box of chocolates in the window at the mall, with the angel on our shoulder saying, “You really shouldn’t” while the devil on the other shoulder says, “Just go for it.”

Well, now you can lose the guilt and have both halves of your conscience in agreement. Thanks to a wealth of new studies, we know that certain types of chocolate – dark chocolate specifically – have benefits to your heart, making the road to indulgence a little less of a guilt trip.

The secret to dark chocolate is nature’s own antioxidant known as flavanol. It’s a naturally occurring antioxidant fund in some plants that is meant to protect plants from environmental damage. Most notably, flavanol is omnipresent in the cocoa plant. And just like it defends plants from their environment, flavanol – or flavonoids – can do the same for humans.

What all these dark-chocolate studies found – oh, how quickly I would have volunteered as a test subject for one them – is that people who consumed limited amounts of dark chocolate showed several different benefits to the heart. To spare all the medical jargon, the primary benefit was that it can reduce the risk of artherosclerosis, also known as the hardening of your arteries, which we’ve discussed fatty diets and smoking worsen. Just as flavanol toughens up a plant, it helps restore flexibility to arteries and prevents white blood cells from sticking to the blood-vessel walls. Add it all up, and a few M&Ms or Hershey bars could chip away at your risk of stroke or heart attack.

But while this chocolate research is good news for those with a sweet tooth and a weak heart, it’s important not to go overboard with this information. If you were to ask me or any doctor to pick between dark chocolate and exercise, the answer is still always going to be – resoundingly – exercise. View this good cocoa-infused news as a supplement more so than a cure for all high-cholesterol ills.

And if chocolate isn’t your speed, you can find these artery-opening antioxidants in plenty of other foods too. As we continue our National Nutrition Month discussion, introducing flavanol into your diet – one that is well rounded with fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meat and fish – could help strengthen your overall cardiovascular health. When searching for flavanol-rich foods, stay around the outside of the supermarket, where the fresh produce resides. Especially flavanol-full foods are foods such as cranberries, apples, peanuts, onions and tea.

Another bonus of seeking out additional flavanol in your diet is what you can drink with your dark chocolate Hershey bar: a nice glass of red wine. I’m sure you’ve already heard that a glass of red wine can be good for the heart. Flavanol is the reason.

But as with anything else in life, and as we discussed last week, everything is good in moderation. In the case of dark chocolate, beware of overconsumption and those lovely caramel, cream or sweetener-stuffed chocolates. The sugar and fats will certainly counteract any positive flavanol effects. As for red wine, well, we all know why moderation is key here. Moderation is even needed with berries and nuts. Lean proteins such as fish, chicken and turkey are important facets of a balanced diet, and ignoring them – even in lieu of something healthy such as berries – is neglecting essential nutrients your body needs.

In the end, as with anything pertaining to diet, there is good news and bad news. The good is that a little dark chocolate – only about an ounce – and a glass of red wine while you watch TV at night can help improve your heart health. The bad news: It’s not a magic bullet and needs to be done in moderation. Nothing will ever replace a well-rounded, balanced diet and daily exercise.

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