Love and Chocolate

I have been listening to my great grandmother Sonia lately when she talks about food.  She will turn 102 next week, lives on her own, cooks all her own meals, has all her own teeth, good eyesight and is mentally sharper than most so I think she must have something figured out.  She has some good rules to live by:  make your own food, if you do eat out only eat vegetarian or fish, and she never makes meat two nights in a row.  However, if you ask her why she has lived this long, she will reply without hesitation “it’s because I eat chocolate every day.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, this certainly isn’t a health decision she is making; we brought her a box of truffles last birthday and after asking my husband to open the bag, her eyes lit up and I think she downed six of them before we left the room.  Healthy or no, her relationship to chocolate (and mine, and I suspect a few of yours out there as well) is pure love.

So in honor of grandma Sonia’s passion and in pursuit of longevity and lifelong health, let’s talk a bit about love and chocolate.  The research is showing more and more what those of us who are devotees to chocolate have suspected all along; chocolate is good for us and makes us feel good.  It improves the two things most crucial to love; the way our minds function and the health of the heart.

There are three primary physiological responses that have been documented in humans in response to chocolate consumption:  Antioxidant activity, decrease in platelet aggregation, and blood vessel dilation.  As an antioxidant, the polyphenols in chocolate have been found to be quite active.  We hear quite a bit about the importance of antioxidants these days; stress, chemical exposure, smoke inhalation, and other toxins cause oxidative damage to our cells.  Especially in the blood vessels, this can lead to inflammation and eventually atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).  Antioxidants, especially those found in chocolate, can prevent this type of damage.  Chocolate is also good for the cardiovascular system because it helps to decrease platelet aggregation, which means the blood becomes less “sticky” and flows more easily through the heart and blood vessels.  Over time, this can help to prevent heart disease.

Finally, the flavanols in chocolate have been shown to assist with dilation of the blood vessels.  The innermost layer of the arteries, called the endothelium, is made up of cells that can contract or relax to allow different amounts of blood through.  Chocolate flavanols assist in relaxing those cells to allow greater blood flow.  This can have several positive affects:  following chocolate consumption, studies have shown improvement in mood due to increased blood flow to the brain.  Cognitive function has also shown improvement in those who have recently ingested chocolate for the same reason.  The relaxation of blood vessels also can cause a decrease in blood pressure that is useful for battling hypertension.  As the research has shown, chocolate helps us to feel happier, think more clearly, and keep our hearts healthy.

Happy Valentine’s Day, grandma Sonia.  Enjoy our chocolatiest holiday, and may we all live well and long by your example.

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