You know the drill around Valentine's Day: Unwrap the box of chocolates and hope that the package contains a little map for picking out your favorites. Otherwise, you're on your own as you nibble around, hoping for crunchy nuts and NOT nougat (or the complete opposite, depending on your preference).
What you might also find as you sample your gift of chocolate is lower blood pressure.
Obviously, eating too much chocolate too often isn't a great idea for your weight or your health. Chocolate can pack a considerable number of calories and fat grams, and it's easy to gobble down way too much at a sitting. But the right kind of chocolate in sensible, reasonable amounts may actually promote healthy blood pressure and good heart health.
Experts have been rushing like kids in a candy store in recent years to measure how chocolate may have beneficial effects on your cardiovascular system. And in honor of Valentine's Day, known for its heart imagery and its chocolate, let's take a look at a sampling of recent research on the topic.
Let's turn first to a study in BMC Medicine from June 2010. Australian researchers combed through the medical literature and found 13 studies in which participants consumed either cocoa products or a placebo (which, as far as medical studies go, sounds fairly appealing). When they compiled the studies, they found that consuming cocoa products was linked to a drop in systolic blood pressure (the first number in a blood-pressure reading) of 3.2 points and a drop in diastolic pressure (the second number) of 2 points. The benefit was found to be significant in people with high blood pressure or a problem leading up to it called prehypertension, but not in people with normal blood pressure.
This blood pressure change is enough to make a difference in a person's health, according to the researchers, who write that lowering your systolic blood pressure by 5 points may reduce your risk of a cardiovascular event (like a heart attack) by 20 percent over five years.
In another study, this one published in the European Heart Journal in 2010, German researchers included nearly 20,000 middle-aged and older people who weren't using blood pressure medications. The researchers checked them after about eight years to see who had a stroke or heart attack.
People who ate the most chocolate had blood pressure that was about one point lower (both for systolic and diastolic pressure) than people who ate the least. Those eating the most had a 39-percent lower risk of having a stroke or heart attack. It should be noted that on average, those eating the most chocolate ate about 6 grams a day more than those in the lowest group ... which is only about 1/5 of an ounce.
Again, it's worth keeping in mind that if you choose to use chocolate for medicinal purposes, more isn't better. Enjoy it in moderation. Also, researchers think that dark chocolate is particularly helpful for heart health, so choose dark varieties over milk chocolate. And remember to take all the other heart-healthy steps you've probably heard about: Eat lots of fruits and vegetables, exercise nearly every day, and keep your weight at a healthy number.