Health Watch -- Chocolate: A Health Food?

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Is that heart-shaped box of chocolates bad for your heart, or could it do some good?

Chocolate tastes so good, it just has to be sinful, right? Well, it may not be as bad as you think. In fact, believe it or not, chocolate could offer some health benefits.

Nutrition experts at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas say that the cocoa bean, the primary ingredient in chocolate, is a good source of anti-oxidants, those beneficial compounds that help reduce the risk for cancer and heart disease. In that respect, chocolate is similar to red wine, grapes, tea, onions and apples.

When it comes to the way chocolate affects your heart, the news is mixed. Studies have shown that the primary fat in chocolate has a neutral effect on total cholesterol levels and levels of LDL, the bad cholesterol. In other studies, chocolate appears to increase triglyceride levels and decrease levels of HDL, the beneficial cholesterol.

Remember that the good properties of chocolate are based on cocoa alone. Things change when it's processed to turn it into candy. That's when milk and sugar are added, increasing the fat and cholesterol content and diluting the antioxidant levels. Dark chocolate is lower in calories and higher in antioxidants than milk chocolate is.

So what's the bottom line? Should you indulge a little? Sure, says Lona Sandon, a UT Southwestern nutrition expert and registered dietitian. Even if there may or may not be health benefits, a little chocolate every so often may make you feel good. Just remember to eat it in moderation.

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Feb. 2004

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