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Let Dark Chocolate Be Your Valentine

Small amounts do a heart good, South Beach Diet doc says

MONDAY, Feb. 13, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Arthur Agatston, the Miami cardiologist who created the popular low-carb South Beach Diet, is no stranger to chocolate.

"I've always been a chocoholic," he said, admitting to a special craving for chocolate-covered macadamia nuts that "call to him" from airport kiosks whenever he's traveling.

So when it comes to Valentine's Day, Agatston is especially eager to help the diet-conscious enjoy treats in the healthiest way possible. That could mean savoring a bit of dark chocolate this Valentine's Day.

Of course, "you can run into trouble with too much chocolate," he said. But he noted there's been a steady stream of good data on the health effects of dark -- but not milk -- chocolate. Some research even suggests that a moderate amount of the dark delight could be good for your heart.

According to the diet doc, studies show that high concentrations of cocoa found in dark chocolate -- at least 70 percent -- help improve vascular function by relaxing blood vessels, keeping cholesterol from gathering in blood vessels and reducing the risk of blood clots.

Others agreed. Jeffrey Blumberg, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition, in Boston, said dark chocolate contains flavanols, plant-based antioxidants that may have beneficial effects on cardiovascular function. These benefits might extend to improving heart function and lowering blood pressure, he said.

"Dark chocolate, green tea and red wine have these flavanols in concentrated forms, which increases their potency per serving," Blumberg added.

"Flavanol compounds are only present in dark chocolate," he stressed. "They are much more diluted in milk chocolate, which is highly processed, and white chocolate has no flavanols."

"However, even if you're eating 80 percent cocoa, flavanol-rich dark chocolate, you're still eating a high-calorie, high-fat food," the Boston expert warned. "It is not a 'health food.'"

Nevertheless, he and a team of researchers published a study last August in Hypertension that found that eating a dark chocolate candy bar once a day for 15 days significantly lowered the blood pressure of 20 people suffering from hypertension.

There was a catch: The participants had to lower their caloric intake of other foods to accommodate the nearly 500 calories they consumed every day by eating the candy bar.

Another study, published online in January in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, identified epicatechin as the cocoa flavanol particularly associated with improved circulation and other aspects of heart health.

Agatston said Valentine's Day presents dieters with the same decisions they make every day: how to make the healthiest choices you can when sitting down to eat.

"You choose whole grain bread instead of white bread, sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes, and when it comes to Valentine's Day, choose dark chocolate-covered almonds rather than milk chocolate or white chocolate," Agatston said. Why almonds? Because they're a good source of vitamin E. Go for walnuts, too, since they're rich in heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids.

"You want to make the best choices, even when you're cheating a bit," Agatston advised. Other sweet recommendations include strawberries dipped in dark chocolate, or any dark chocolate bar with at least 70 percent cocoa. Look especially for European chocolates, since they tend to be very rich in cocoa, a fact that's often listed on the label.

And what about those macadamia nuts?

"Have them in moderation, because they have good fats, but you can certainly have too many," Agatston said.

And he should know.

More information

Dive into more delicious chocolate lore at the Cleveland Clinic.

SOURCES: Arthur Agatston, M.D., associate professor, medicine, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and author, The South Beach Diet; Jeffrey B. Blumberg, Ph.D., professor, nutrition, Friedman School of Medicine, Tufts University, Boston; August 2005 Hypertension; Jan. 16, 2006, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online
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