The likelihood that a brownie with nuts would be good for your heart might seem slim, at best. After all, brownies are an indulgence notoriously high in both sugar and fat. However, evidence suggests that both cocoa (dark chocolate) and tree nuts can actually help to prevent coronary heart disease (CHD), which remains the leading cause of death in the United States.2
This could be good news coming into the holiday season!
Nuts and dark chocolate (in moderation) are good for your heart.
What Makes Nuts Good for Heart Health?
Nuts Help to Lower LDL Cholesterol
Nuts may also reduce the risk of CHD by lowering total and LDL cholesterol, an unexpected bonus based on their favorable fatty-acid profiles. They appear to contain bioactive compounds with cholesterol-lowering properties.4 Lowered LDL levels aid in heart health by5:
- Reducing inflammation
- Decreasing oxidative stress
- Improving endothelial function
- Decreasing the risk of type 2 diabetes (in women)
- Reducing the risk of weight gain
And emerging evidence suggests that frequent nut consumption may have beneficial effects on CHD risk beyond lowering cholesterol.6
Cocoa is Rich in Both History and Flavonoids
The first use of the cacao tree fruit as a food is unknown. Speculation is that the Incas created a drink from dried cocoa seeds. However, hard evidence to support this speculation is lacking.
It is known that the Mayans, and later the Aztecs, considered cocoa a drink of their gods and reserved it for rituals and celebrations by royalty and high priests. Spanish conquistadors learned to appreciate chocolate and introduced it to Europe. As is now obvious no matter where in the world you go, chocolate has never waned in popularity.
Cocoa is not only rich in history, but also in flavonoids, which are dietary antioxidants that can help to protect against CHD. In fact, cocoa contains the highest flavonoid content by weight of any food.7
Flavonoids and CHD Risk: The Evidence
High cocoa and chocolate consumption has been associated with a reduced risk of CHD in several population studies.8 And this is likely due to cocoa’s high levels of flavonoids.
In fact, flavonoids found in cocoa may protect against CHD by9:
- Reducing the susceptibility of LDL cholesterol to oxidation
- Reducing platelet stickiness
- Reducing inflammation
- Improving endothelial function
- Lowering blood pressure
- Increasing HDL
- Decreasing insulin resistance
Study on Cocoa Flavanols
In a randomized controlled double-blind trial, a group of 22 healthy young men (younger than 35 years of age) and 20 healthy older adult men (50 to 80 years of age) received either a drink infused with cocoa flavanols (CF) or a nutritionally equal drink without flavanols twice daily. The research team found that older adult men who consumed the CF-infused drink experienced less age-related stiffening of arteries and a decrease in blood pressure. And both the young and older adult men in this intervention group displayed decreased diastolic blood pressure and increased endothelial function overall.10
Although cocoa clearly has the ability to create positive cardiovascular effects, it should still be consumed with discretion. Whereas pure cocoa is relatively low in sugar and fat, chocolate candy bars tend to have excess sugars and fats added, canceling out some of cocoa’s beneficial effects.11
Enjoy Nuts and Chocolate This Holiday Season
While maintaining a healthy weight and diet is so important for the heart health journey, so is taking pleasure in life! Knowing what you now know about nuts and chocolate, enjoy some healthy and indulgent snacks this holiday season (in moderation).
Wishing you all happy holidays, friends!
- Benjamin EJ, Virani SS, Callaway CW, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics — 2018 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2018;137(12):e67-e492.doi: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000000558.
- Mayhew AJ, de Souza RJ, Meyre D, Anand SS, Mente A. A systematic review and meta-analysis of nut consumption and incident risk of CVA and all-cause mortality. Br J Nutr. 2016;115(2):212-225. doi: 10.1017/S0007114515004316.
- Sarriá B, Martínez-López S, Sierra-Cinos JL, et al. Effects of bioactive constituents in functional cocoa products on cardiovascular health in humans. Food Chem. 2015;174:214-218. doi: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2014.11.004.
- Kim Y, Keogh JB, Clifton PM. Benefits of nut consumption on insulin resistance and cardiovascular risk factors: multiple potential mechanisms of actions. 2017;9(11):1271. doi: 10.3390/nu9111271.
- Jackson CL, Hu FB. Long-term associations of nut consumption with body weight and obesity. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(Suppl 1):408S-411S. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.071332.
- Ros E. Nuts and CVD. Brit J Nutr. 2015;113(Suppl 2):S111-S120. doi: 10.1017/S0007114514003924.
- Khan N, Khymenets O, Urpi-Sardà M, et al. Cocoa polyphenols and inflammatory markers of cardiovascular disease. 2014;6(2):844-880. doi: 10.3390/nu6020844.
- Jumar A, Schmieder Cocoa flavanol cardiovascular effects beyond blood pressure reduction. J Clin Hypertens (Greenwich). 2016;18(4):352-358. doi: 10.1111/jch.12715.
- Panche AN, Diwan AD, Chandra SR. Flavonoids: an overview. J Nutr 2016;5:e47. doi: 10.1017/jns.2016.41.
- Heiss C, Sansone R, Karimi H, et al. Impact of cocoa flavanol intake on age-dependent vascular stiffness in healthy men: a randomized, controlled, double-masked trial. Age (Dordr). 2015;37(3):9794. doi: 10.1007/s11357-015-9794-9.
- Eating almonds and dark chocolate lowers bad cholesterol. American Heart Association Web site. https://www.heart.org/en/news/2018/05/01/eating-almonds-and-dark-chocolate-lowers-bad-cholesterol. Published November 29, 2017