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Chocolate can do good things for your heart, skin and brain

By Marjorie Ingall
Health.com
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Listen to the way people malign chocolate: Sinful! Decadent! To die for! There's even that popular restaurant dessert known as "Death by Chocolate." But is this any way to talk about a loved one -- especially during the season of comfort and joy?

Bite your tongue! Evidence is mounting that some kinds of chocolate are actually good for you. Here's the latest about the healthy side of your chocolate habit and taste-tested advice on what to try. Merry munching.

A happier heart

Scientists at the Harvard University School of Public Health recently examined 136 studies on coco -- the foundation for chocolate -- and found it does seem to boost heart health, according to an article in the European journal Nutrition and Metabolism.

"Studies have shown heart benefits from increased blood flow, less platelet stickiness and clotting, and improved bad cholesterol," says Mary B. Engler, Ph.D., a chocolate researcher and director of the Cardiovascular and Genomics Graduate Program at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Nursing. These benefits are the result of cocoa's antioxidant chemicals known as flavonoids, which seem to prevent both cell damage and inflammation.

Better blood pressure

If yours is high, chocolate may help. Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University, recently found that hypertensive people who ate 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate per day for two weeks saw their blood pressure drop significantly, according to an article in the journal Hypertension. Their bad cholesterol dropped, too.

People who ate the same amount of white chocolate? Nothing. (It doesn't have any cocoa -- or flavonoids.) Word to the wise: 3.5 ounces is roughly equal to a big bar of baking chocolate, so the participants had to cut about 400 calories out of their daily diets to make room. But you probably don't have to go to those lengths. Just a bite may do you good, Blumberg says.

Muscle magic

Chocolate milk may help you recover after a hard workout. In a small study at Indiana University, elite cyclists who drank chocolate milk between workouts scored better on fatigue and endurance tests than those who had some sports drinks. Yoo-hoo!

TLC for your skin

German researchers gave 24 women a half-cup of special extra-flavonoid-enriched cocoa every day. After three months, the women's skin was moister, smoother, and less scaly and red when exposed to ultraviolet light. The researchers think the flavonoids, which absorb UV light, help protect and increase blood flow to the skin, improving its appearance.

Brain gains

It sounds almost too good to be true, but preliminary research at West Virginia's Wheeling Jesuit University suggests chocolate may boost your memory, attention span, reaction time, and problem-solving skills by increasing blood flow to the brain. Chocolate companies found comparable gains in similar research on healthy young women and on elderly people.

Good loving (maybe)

Finally, Italian researchers wanted to know whether chocolate truly is an aphrodisiac. In a survey of 143 women published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, those who ate chocolate every day seemed to have more sex drive, better lubrication, and an easier time reaching orgasm. Pass the Godiva, right?

Not so fast. The women who ate chocolate were all younger than the ones who didn't; it was age and not chocolate that made the difference. Still, if a double-chocolate raspberry truffle puts you in the mood, why let science get in the way?

New York--based writer Marjorie Ingall loves milk chocolate but says she's ready to go dark this year


Copyright 2006 HEALTH Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Preliminary research suggests chocolate may boost your memory, attention span, reaction time, and problem-solving skills.

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