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Cocoa's association with chocolate means that the benefits of eating it are often overlooked, but cocoa is a health powerhouse. Made from the seed of the Theobroma cacao plant, in its rawest form, cocoa contains over 700 compounds. Many of these, like antioxidants, are beneficial to health. Science is still investigating how these compounds affect the body, but most agree that adding cocoa to the diet (without the additives in most milk chocolate) can improve wellness in many ways.

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Cardiovascular Benefits

Studies show that people who eat more chocolate have a lower risk of heart attack and stroke. This is due to the impact cocoa has on blood vessels. Compounds called polyphenols have an anti-inflammatory effect that helps to dilate the veins and arteries, thin the blood, and improve blood flow. Cocoa also lowers blood pressure, especially among people with hypertension. Another way chocolate protects the heart is by reducing LDL, or bad, cholesterol.

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Mental Health Benefits

Dark chocolate might protect against depression, with one study showing that people who had eaten it in the previous 24 hours were 70% less likely to report feeling depressed. Experts believe this effect is due to resveratrol, an antioxidant in cocoa that can increase levels of endorphins and serotonin in the brain. Cocoa can also help with anxiety, thanks to compounds that release dopamine and have euphoric effects.

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Beneficial to Brain Function

Research suggests the flavanols in chocolate can to improve attention, executive function, and memory. Studies among people with mild cognitive impairment show that subjects had improved thinking skills after daily consumption of cocoa flavanols. Experts believe cocoa helps brain cells make connections and protects them from toxins and the effects of inflammation. Some scientists believe that cocoa could have positive impacts on neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

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Aids in Weight Control

Although eating large amounts of high-sugar milk chocolate may lead to weight gain, dark chocolate may help control weight. In one study of people on a low-carbohydrate diet, subjects who ate dark chocolate had faster weight loss than the control group. Another study found that people who ate chocolate regularly had a lower body mass index than others, despite higher calorie intake. Experts link these effects to cocoa's ability to reduce appetite and increase fat oxidation.

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Healthy Skin

Cocoa butter, the fat from cocoa beans, has long been added to skincare products thanks to its fatty acids, which hydrate and improve elasticity. Ingesting cocoa can also help improve skin. It promotes blood circulation, which improves the skin's texture and hydration levels. Cocoa polyphenols could also help protect against the negative effects of sun exposure.

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May Have Anti-Diabetic Properties

Research into cocoa and diabetes is still limited, but early studies suggest that flavanols have a range of benefits for people with type 2 diabetes. The cocoa compounds help slow carbohydrate digestion, improve insulin sensitivity, and enhance insulin secretion. Some studies also show that cocoa helps limit the inflammatory damage that many people with the disease experience. However, most commercially available cocoa has limited benefits for people with diabetes as the flavanol levels are low.

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Other Cocoa Benefits

The many antioxidants in cocoa mean it has numerous health benefits. Studies show chocolate boosts the immune system and has antibiotic effects. Animals fed a diet high in flavanols from cocoa had positive results in reducing some cancers, and small human studies suggest the antioxidants in cocoa can help prevent cancer. Cocoa also contains anti-asthmatic compounds; current research is investigating if cocoa could help relax airways and ease breathing. Animals studies also suggest chocolate can help prevent cavities.

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Adding Cocoa to Your Diet

Many people already eat cocoa regularly, but not all cocoa has the health benefits of the raw plant. Dark chocolate contains more beneficial compounds than milk chocolate. Conversely, white chocolate contains no cocoa and so offers no particular health benefits. One ounce of dark chocolate a day is considered a healthy amount. Cocoa powder, especially Dutch cocoa, contains fewer antioxidants than chocolate. Cocoa nibs, or crushed cocoa beans, are becoming popular and, as they undergo minimal processing, may offer greater health benefits.

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When to Avoid Cocoa

Although cocoa is considered safe when eaten in sensible quantities, certain demographics may be better off avoiding chocolate. Cocoa contains caffeine, which can speed up the heart rate and cause problems for people with heart conditions and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding. Cocoa's blood-thinning qualities are also a concern for individuals with blood disorders or those recovering from surgery.

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Possible Side Effects

Some people do experience side effects from eating cocoa, often due to caffeine levels. Symptoms can include migraines, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping, as well as digestive issues such as nausea and diarrhea. Although rare, some people have cocoa allergies. Those susceptible often experience a skin rash after eating chocolate.

May cause digestive issues Ake Ngiamsanguan / Getty Images

Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.