#184 The Top 3 Dark Chocolate Health Benefits

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The Top 3 Dark Chocolate Health Benefits

Could there actually be dark chocolate health benefits?  How could something that tastes so good, be good for you?  Read on to learn about a medical mystery and the top three health benefits of dark chocolate.

Chocolate, High Blood Pressure, and Kuna Indians

In 1944, an obscure army surgeon, Dr. B. H. Kean, was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone by the U.S. army.  While there, he noticed that the Kuna Indians, who lived on the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama, didn’t get high blood pressure.  Even as they aged, their blood pressure still stayed in the very healthy 110/70 mmHg range.

Dr. Kean published his observations in 1944, but no one paid attention.  In fact, for the next 50 years, his findings lay buried in a medical journal.  It wasn’t until the 1990s that Harvard physician and hypertension researcher, Dr. Norman Hollenberg , discovered Dr. Kean’s 1944 article.

The Medical Mystery of the San Blas Islands

Dr. Hollenberg was an expert in the genetic causes of high blood pressure.  After reading Dr. Kean’s 1944 article, he was convinced that the Kuna Indians must have a gene that protected them from high blood pressure.

So, nearly 50 years later, Dr. Hollenberg went in search of these Kuna Indians.  He found that 50 years later, they still didn’t get high blood pressure.

However, Dr. Hollenberg’s studies showed that they didn’t get high blood pressure as long as they lived on the San Blas Islands.  If they ever moved off the islands, then their blood pressure went up. Based on this finding, he concluded that genes couldn’t be involved.

In the 1990s, the conventional medical wisdom was that if high blood pressure wasn’t due to genes, then it must be from eating too much salt or too much stress.  Surely, he thought, the Kuna Indians must either not be eating much salt or living a stress free island life.

Once again, he was wrong.

When he measured their daily salt intake, it wasn’t low.  Their stress levels also weren’t any lower on the islands.  The Kuna Indians ate just as much salt and had just as much stress in their lives as those people living on the Panama mainland.

In addition to not getting high blood pressure, Dr. Hollenberg also discovered that the Kuna Indians living on the San Blas Islands didn’t get diabetes, heart disease, or cancer either.  Their lifespan was even much longer.  In fact, his studies showed that the Kuna Indians living on the islands were 4 times less likely to get diabetes, 15 times less likely to get heart disease, and 19 times less likely to get cancer compared to those living on the Panama mainland.

The Kuna Indians

Historically, the Kuna Indians descended from the Mayans.  In order to escape Spanish domination, they migrated to these remote islands several hundred years ago.

Today, there are about 53,000 Kuna Indians inhabiting 49 of the approximately 365 San Blas Islands.  While these people are still isolated, increasingly more and more tourists are visiting their islands.

The Kuna Lifestyle

After years of research, Dr. Hollenberg ultimately concluded that it was their healthy lifestyle, combined with a big dose of chocolate, that explained why the Kuna Indians lived such long and healthy lives.

As you might expect, they didn’t have access to sugar, processed foods, or fast foods.  Rather, they only ate real food.

Each day they ate mostly vegetables with some coconut, beans, rice, wild fish, and lots of chocolate.  Yes, lots of chocolate.

From as soon as their children are weaned, they start drinking cocoa.  In fact, most Kuna on the San Blas Islands drink about 5 cups of this stuff each day.  Indeed, the Kuna Indians consume more “chocolate,” than any other group of people in the world.

I should point out that the cocoa they drink is much different than the chocolate you might find in a store. Their chocolate isn’t loaded with sugar.  It also isn’t highly processed, so the flavanol content is much higher.

The Top 3 Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate

The closer your chocolate is to what they consume on the San Blas Islands, the greater your health benefits.  Based on my review of the medical literature, here are my top 3 health benefits of dark chocolate.

1. Lowers Blood Pressure

While the Kuna Indians enjoy a remarkable 110/70 blood pressure throughout life, most chocolate eating Americans will never see such an amazing blood pressure.  Yes, chocolate, especially cocoa or dark chocolate, lowers blood pressure but not to the 110/70 level.

A review of all studies on chocolate and blood pressure shows that cocoa/dark chocolate lowers your systolic blood pressure (the top number), by about three points.  Given that the typical blood pressure medicine only lowers blood pressure by eight points, this isn’t bad.  I would much prefer a square of dark chocolate over a pill.

Even just a mild reduction in blood pressure can help to prevent heart attacks, strokes, and dementia.  Based on other studies, just a 3 point drop in blood pressure would be expected to lower your risk of heart disease by 4% and your risk of a stroke by 9%.

What else likely accounts for why the Kuna Indians don’t get high blood pressure?

Until recently, they didn’t gain weight.  Their mostly plant-based real food diet, combined with lots of physical activity, kept them lean.  Studies show that for every two pounds you lose, your blood pressure drops by one point.

As mentioned, they didn’t eat much sugar by today’s standards.  Cutting out sugar will drop your blood pressure by another 8 points.

Lastly, they were physically active throughout the day and ate a mostly plant-based real food diet.  Studies show that regular exercise lowers your blood pressure by 7 points.  Also, a mostly plant-based real food diet, will knock off another 6 points off your blood pressure.

2. Helps with Weight Loss

Several years ago, I committed that the only sweet thing I would ever eat was the darkest chocolate I could find.  This commitment has satisfied my life-long sweet tooth and has helped me to naturally get down to a healthier weight.

Indeed, studies show that dark chocolate helps with weight loss.  To get the most weight loss help from chocolate, dark chocolate should replace any other sweets you may be eating.

Ideally, your chocolate needs to be as dark as possible.  For example, in one study, researchers compared dark chocolate to milk chocolate.  Sadly, only the dark chocolate helped with weight loss.

In this study, researchers found that dark chocolate not only satisfied people’s sweet tooth but it also filled them up enough so that they ate 116 less calories each day.  Thus, based on this study, if the only treat you ever eat is dark chocolate, then you could expect to lose 12 pounds per year.

3. Live Longer

The longest lived person in the world, Jeanne Calment, claimed that chocolate helped her to live to age 122.  In fact, she even ate 2.2 pounds (1 kg) of chocolate every week.

Could there be any science behind chocolate being a longevity food?

A few years ago, Dutch researchers put this question to the test.  In this study, researchers divided 470 men into three groups, based on how much chocolate they ate, and followed them for 15 years.  Surprisingly, the men who ate the most chocolate were twice as likely to still be alive at the end of the 15 year study.

Are there any other dark chocolate health benefits?

In addition to the dark chocolate health benefits discussed (blood pressure lowering, weight loss, protection from heart disease, and a longer lifespan), dark chocolate has also been shown to have the following health benefits:

1. High in Fiber, anti-oxidants, magnesium, iron, zinc, and many other nutrients.

2. Lowers bad cholesterol and raises good cholesterol.

3. May protect your skin from sun damage.

4. May improve brain function.

What kind of chocolate should you eat?

Unfortunately, white and milk chocolate are just candy.  This is because there is too much sugar and so few flavanols.

To maximize the dark chocolate health benefits, you want it as dark as possible (minimum of 70% cacao) with the least amount of sugar and processing.  Sugar should never be the first ingredient.  Also, avoid alkali processing as this strips the chocolate of flavanols.

Although it is an acquired taste, if you want to eat something more similar to the Kuna Indians, then you may want to consider the much less processed cacao nibs.  Unsweetened cacao nibs are even healthier than dark chocolate.

Can you eat too much chocolate?

Certainly, the Kuna Indians and Jeanne Calment didn’t seem to suffer from too much chocolate.  When scientists studied this, they found that the more chocolate you eat, the less likely you are to suffer a heart attack.

Of course, some restraint is needed.   In this study, the highest chocolate eaters ate less than 100 grams daily (3.5 oz).

Does chocolate cause arrhythmias?

Many people, especially heart patients, worry that chocolate’s caffeine could cause an arrhythmia.  Once again, when put this to the test in 1,388 people, researchers concluded that chocolate does not cause arrhythmias.

Take Home Message

The take home message of this article is that you don’t have to move to the beautiful San Blas Islands, and eat chocolate all day, to live a long and healthy life.  Rather, you can replicate the lessons learned from the Kuna Indians and enjoy the dark chocolate health benefits in your own life.

Eating real food, which includes the darkest chocolate with minimal to no sugar and processing, can help you live a long and healthy life.  Ideally, this chocolate should replace any other sweets you may be eating.

How do you enjoy chocolate?  Have you experienced any dark chocolate health benefits?  Please leave your experiences and questions below.  Also, if you have not yet subscribed to my free weekly newsletter or podcast, now is the time.

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8 Comments
  1. As the percentage of cacao in chocolate rises into the 70s and 80s and above (dark to very dark), many people find that the bitterness is too much for them and they don’t enjoy the taste. If you’re one of these folks, it may be because you’re eating it wrong!

    Most people eat dark chocolate like the sugar-loaded candy chocolate they grew up on (i.e. milk chocolate) – they chew it. The result is the release of lots of bitterness all at once, which overpowers the more subtle flavors.

    Chocolatiers recommend that you DON’T CHEW IT! Instead, put a square of dark chocolate on your tongue and gently suck on it like you would a piece of hard candy. When you eat it like this, lots of flavors will be released in sequence. Depending on the recipe, you’ll probably be able to detect several distinct flavors – fruits, nuts, sweet nectars, etc. – as the chocolate melts in your mouth, and the bitter flavors won’t overwhelm. Chocolatiers work very hard to develop recipes that showcase various flavors and sequences, and chewing such chocolate is like hauling lumber in a Ferrari: it’s just not designed to be used that way.

    Try it – you’ll probably find that you can enjoy very high percentage cacao chocolates this way. You’ll probably even find that not only do dark and very dark chocolates not taste bitter, many of them actually taste sweet!

  2. Do you know much about brewed chocolate such as Crio Bru or Choffee? Seems like it might be good since the only ingredient is ground cocoa beans. Do you know if brewing it destroys any of the good stuff?

    • Hi Margot,

      If it is just the ground cocoa beans then it should have all of the good stuff. The Kuna Indians drink their chocolate this way and extensive studies have shown that they get all of the health benefits from the cocoa beans.

      Best,

      John

  3. Dr. Day,

    You say that on the islands, the Kuna Indians ate just as much salt as when they moved to the mainland, yet it sounds with their unprocessed diet on the islands, they’d be eating virtually no salt. Do they not eat salt on the Panama mainland as well?

    I also believe that their extreme good health isn’t just caused by their chocolate consunption but by their very good overall diet. It could be their chocolate consumption just makes a small contribution to their health. Other societies such as Okinawa that eat such healthy diets (without chocolate) do just as well healthwise.

    • Hi Diane,

      Thanks for reading and commenting! Sorry if I wasn’t clear in the article…yes, when the Harvard research team measured their salt intake/excretion it was essentially the same whether or not they were living on the islands or the Panama mainland.

      I completely agree with you on the reason why they enjoy such great health. While the Harvard researchers were convinced it was due to “the chocolate,” in their research article, I think it was their all-around healthy lifestyle. Even if you eat 100% cacao with no added sugar it won’t give you great health alone…it needs to be in conjunction with an overall healthy lifestyle.

      Best,

      John

  4. Where can you buy the best kind of chocolate and know that it wasn’t processed the wrong way that strips it of the flavanols? Do you have a brand name product you use? Thanks so much!

    • Hi Shara-Dee,

      Thanks for reading! We buy our dark chocolate at either our local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. In general, the best chocolate can be found at health food stores.

      As there are not any big brands when it comes to the healthier forms of chocolate, it is hard for me to recommend any one brand. I would suggest going to your local health food store and asking a knowledgeable employee.

      Hope this helps!

      John