In praise of chocolate -- It could be good for you!

by Susan Moores, M.S., R.D.

Praise chocolateChocolate. Make a cake so good it'll melt your heart - and may help you avoid coronary disease.

Is there a sweeter word in the dictionary?

But it's destined to be an unrequited love, isn't it? How can you have a healthy relationship when it dumps all those calories - and guilt - on you?

Brace yourself for a surprise - if you stick to cocoa, or choose chocolate that contains more heart-healthy fats, you can make it work.

Chocolate is good for you!

• Cocoa (and thus chocolate) contains flavonoids - the same headline-grabbing health-promoting substances found in tea, red wine and soy foods.

• Studies suggest that chocolate's flavonoids may help protect against heart disease and stroke by slowing blood's ability to clot, and by reducing the potential for plaque build-up inside artery walls.

• Cocoa's main fat, stearic acid, may be heart-healthy. Our bodies convert it to a monounsaturated fat.

• In carefully controlled studies, when individuals ate chocolate bars rich in stearic acid, their blood cholesterol levels didn't go up.

Just one catch...

There's a hitch, though -- the good stuff is in the cocoa. But most chocolate is also rich in saturated fats - the kind that raises "bad" LDL cholesterol. Products made with partially hydrogenated vegetable oils also contain cholesterol-raising trans fatty acids. Do we need to mention all the sugar and calories, too?

The smart way to eat chocolate

For an occasional treat, choose dark chocolate. It's got slightly more flavonoids and proportionately more stearic acid than milk chocolate.

A 3/4-oz. bar of milk chocolate has a whopping 15 grams of fat, with less than 4 grams of it from stearic acid. The equivalent dark bar has about the same amount of fat with 6 grams of stearic acid. Still no health bargain, but a little better!

For a more common indulgence, try real cocoa. Make hot cocoa with skim milk or low-fat soymilk - and use it in cooking.

Chocolate lovers surely will get weak at the knees for our Valentine Cake. It's got enough real cocoa to provide a deep chocolate experience. When you whisper sweet nothings into your valentine's ear, though, don't mention that this gift is designed not only to win a heart, but also to keep it strong.

Susan Moores is a nutritionist and health writer in St. Paul, Minn. Her specialty is easy-to-implement lifestyle tips for better health.

© Alere. All rights reserved. Last Reviewed June 2012. Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.