Surprising sweet treat that helps your heart beat

Surprising sweet treat that helps your heart beat

We’ve heard about them over and over — those yummy foods that we should skip because they aren’t healthy for us.

But now we have some good news! There’s a delicious food that may have health benefits that will surprise you!

Chocolate! It appears to help reduce your risk for the serious heart condition called AFib — atrial fibrillation.

AFib is the most common type of arrhythmia. That’s a problem with the speed or rhythm of the heartbeat. AFib leaves a person with a higher risk for stroke, heart failure, cognitive decline, dementia and even death. AFib affects up to six million people in the U.S., and the number is expected to grow as our population ages.

Chocolate for Heart Health

Past research has found heart health positives related to dark chocolate. In one study, scientists at Harvard analyzed Danish research involving more than 3,300 men and women with AFib.

The study looked closely at chocolate’s value in reducing AFib risks. Although the study didn’t look at the type of chocolate people consumed — dark or milk — the researchers did note darker chocolate contains more flavanols. That’s an antioxidant that may help promote healthy blood vessel function.

The study author, Elizabeth Mostofsky, an epidemiology instructor at Harvard’s School of Public Health, explained that the health benefits appear to come from cocoa, not milk and sugar. If you’re a milk chocolate fan, you may want to consider developing a taste for dark chocolate. For the best heart protection, choose chocolate with 70 percent or greater of cocoa. The higher the percentage of cocoa, the more flavanols it contains.

Research shows that flavanols help reduce risk of A-Fib. Flavanols also help protect your cardiovascular system by:

  • Reducing inflammation
  • Lowering blood pressure
  • Improving blood flow to the heart and brain
  • Making blood platelets less sticky and able to clot
  • Reducing oxidation caused by free radicals
  • Reducing stress hormones.

Chocolate by the Numbers

What’s the evidence of chocolate’s potential to boost heart health? Researchers found these correlations between the amount of chocolate consumed and AFib risk reduction (compared to people who ate no chocolate):

  • Eating 1 to 3 servings per month reduced AFib risk by 10 percent
  • 1 serving per week reduced risk by 17 percent
  • 2 to 6 servings per week reduced risk by 20 percent
  • 1 or more servings per day reduced risk by 16 percent

A serving size is one ounce — about three to four squares of chocolate. The study results were the same for men and women.

The Other Side of the Story

The study authors said their research had some limitations. Factors that affect health other than chocolate consumption weren’t tracked in the study. And they found chocolate consumers tended to have lower levels of other risk factors such as hypertension and diabetes.

While the study results are pretty good news for chocoholics, moderation in your diet is still stressed by the researchers. No single food improves your health on its own. When chocolate is consumed as part of a healthy eating pattern, health benefits are enhanced. Portion control is key, as chocolate is high in calories — enjoy in small amounts. Balance out the calories with regular exercise and physical activity for a well-rounded healthy lifestyle.

It’s never too late to start eating right and incorporating more physical activities in your daily life.

And now you can enjoy having a little guilt-free chocolate, too!

Heather Klug is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women’s Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

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About the Author

Heather Klug
Heather Klug

Heather Klug, MEd RD is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women's Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.