Happy Heart Month!

Happy Heart Month!

From Dr. Suhani Shah, ND:

 Chocolate pieces on aluminum foilDid you know that February – the month of love – is known as February Heart Month? Don’t just spread love to your friends and significant others on Valentine’s Day but spread love for the entire month. This includes loving yourself too and making sure you take time to engage in some self-loving self-care.

Part of your self-care includes doing things that energize you and promote good health and since it is “Heart Month”, engage in healthy eating and physical activity as it will support your cardiovascular health. Omega 3 fats like salmon, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are great as they also help decrease inflammation. Trans fats, mainly found in processed food products, are something to stay away from because they can create more damage and raise levels of “bad” cholesterol.

Chocolate is another food that can be nutritious and have many health benefits including supporting your heart health as long as you eat the right type of chocolate – none of the Crispy Crunch, Coffee Crisp or other chocolate “candy” bar that is packed with sugar.

What type of chocolate is “Right”?

Chocolate that is at least 70% or more dark chocolate and has cacao/cocoa and cacao/cocoa butter as the top ingredients. Sugar should be closer to the end of the ingredient list if it is present. This means that by weight, most of the chocolate bar contains cacao or cocoa – where the health benefits of chocolate are found.

While cacao and cocoa both have health benefits, cacao is superior and is considered the superfood. This is because chocolate containing cacao is raw and made by cold-pressing raw cacao beans and made into a powder or chocolate. Cocoa is derived when cacao beans have been roasted at high temperatures prior to being ground and processed into cocoa powder or chocolate. The roasting process denatures many of the enzymes and reduces the nutritional value which is why it is better to opt for “cacao” than “cocoa”.

Cacao/cocoa is rich in antioxidants, in particular, group known as flavanols. Antioxidants help protect the body against oxidative stress and inflammation which are key players in cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions. Its benefit on cardiovascular health can be seen through a research review done by Vlachojannis et al (2016) which found that consuming chocolate rich in flavanols and epicatechin helped decrease blood pressure when approximately 100g of chocolate was consumed. Another study found that when individuals are sleep deprived, not only do they not perform well cognitively but blood pressure has shown to increase. Consuming flavanol rich chocolate showed to lower blood pressure through improving flow-mediated dilation (therefore improving peripheral and central blood flow) in those that are sleep deprived. This can in turn improve cognitive performance (Grassi et al, 2016). 70% or greater dark chocolate is rich in flavanols and epicatechin.

Other non-cardiovascular benefits of cocoa or cacao include: providing the amino acid, tryptophan, an amino acid precursor to making serotonin which is known as the happy neurotransmitter and may often be low in people who are depressed or anxious; It also contains calcium; It has iron, zinc, copper, and manganese which are nutrients that play a role in thyroid hormone synthesis among other functions; and, it contains magnesium and potassium – two nutrients that may help lower blood pressure as well as help with muscle cramps.

It can now be seen why chocolate is considered a superfood as long as you eat the right type – 70% or more dark chocolate with as little of the sugar, high fructose corn syrup, milk solids or other “junk” ingredients. Also, it is best to consume chocolate in its raw form – cacao. You can also purchase cacao nibs to add to oatmeal and smoothies and cacao powder to make hot chocolate with rather than cocoa powder.

Please remember that if you do have depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, thyroid dysfunction, muscle cramps or other conditions, dark chocolate may help but all health conditions are multifactorial and therefore there is no one magic superfood or ingredient that can “fix” you. The best approach is to seek a healthcare professional that can work with you to figure out the root cause and address all the different factors (physical, mental, and emotional).

If you would like to book an appointment with Dr. Shah to find out the best individualized treatment plan for you, please call the Quarry Park location.


Grassi D, Socci V, Tempesta D, Ferri C, De Gennaro L, Desideri G, and Ferrara M. Flavanol-rich chocolate acutely improves arterial function and working memory performance counteracting the effects of sleep deprivation in healthy individuals. J Hypertens. 2016 Jul;34(7):1298-308.

Vlachojannis J, Erne P, Zimmerman B, Chrubasik-Hausmann S. The impact of cocoa flavanols on cardiovascular health. Phytother Res. 2016 Oct;30(10):1641-1657.