—A Special Report from Victor Marchione, MD
According to recent research, chocolate (in moderation) could improve heart health and change the levels of cholesterol in your blood in a beneficial way. No doubt you already have some questions about the preceding statement. How much chocolate is good for your heart? What kinds of chocolate could help lower cholesterol? But, most importantly, you might be wondering why the saturated fat in chocolate is supposed to be good for you, when this type of fat is normally considered bad.
You wouldn’t be alone in expecting chocolate to be a dietary no-no for cardiovascular health. The past 10 years of research have shown that saturated fats are not good for the heart. Eating these fats on a regular basis has been linked to an increase in LDL cholesterol
To help unravel why there’s a beneficial effect of chocolate on cholesterol, here’s a quick chemistry lesson on fats. First of all fat is oil that is solid at room temperature, while oil is liquid at the same temperature. The two versions of fat are similar at the molecular level. All fatty acids are long chains of carbon atoms and hydrogen atoms with a carboxylic acid at the end. The number of carbon and hydrogen atoms in the fatty acid will determine most of its properties, such as how it tastes and whether it is a solid or a liquid.
Now, if all of the carbon atoms are joined by single bonds, such as in stearic and myristic acids, it is called a “saturated fatty acid.” If there is one double bond in the molecule — you guessed it — it is called a “monounsaturated fat.” And, finally, if there are two or more double bonds, like in linoleic acid, it is a polyunsaturated fat.
Medical research has been telling us for some time that monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids are much healthier for our bodies than saturated fats. Saturated fats, almost without exception, raise bad cholesterol and sometimes lower the good. However, the exception is a fatty acid with 18 carbon atoms. Stearic acid, a saturated fat, has been shown to lower total plasma cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. And now you understand how chocolate can be good for your cholesterol levels: it is loaded with saturated 18 carbon fatty acids.
In a study performed at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing, researchers searched for studies that looked at how cocoa affected blood fats, or lipids. They found eight trials in all that included 215 people. After analyzing the studies, the researcher team found that eating cocoa cut levels of LDL cholesterol by about six mg/dL and reduced total cholesterol by the same amount. The researchers also found that it was people with risk factors for heart disease, such as diabetes, who saw their LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol drop the most by around eight mg/dL each.
One note of caution: moderation is key! Only people who ate small amounts of cocoa — an amount containing 260 milligrams of polyphenols or less — experienced cholesterol-lowering effects; people who consumed more showed no effect.