Even if you swear off sweets the rest of the year, Valentine’s Day is a time-honored excuse to indulge in a big heart-shaped box of gooey, sweet chocolates. And with research consistently showing that chocolate has multiple benefits for your health, you can enjoy that bonbon guilt-free—as long as you indulge in moderation, says Audrey Banich, RD, a nutritionist with Indiana University Health.
“Cocoa beans contain antioxidants called flavonoids, and a lot of studies have shown that flavonoids can lower your blood pressure, increase your good cholesterol, and help with hypertension,” Banich explains. In fact, a recent study found that healthy people who ate up to 100 g of chocolate a day had an 11 percent lower risk of all cardiovascular disease, including a 23 percent lower risk of stroke, than people who ate no chocolate at all.
Chocolate is also good for the brain: Another recent study found that people who ate chocolate at least once a week performed better on tests measuring memory, abstract reasoning, and organization than those who abstained.
But not all chocolates are created equal, says Banich. “The more you process the cocoa beans, the fewer flavonoids the chocolate contains,” she explains. That means factory-made milk chocolates will have less heart-healthy power than a bar of dark chocolate. When choosing chocolate, look at the label: The higher the percentage of cocoa, the more flavonoids the candy will contain. Also, the highest concentration of flavonoids are in cocoa powder, so skip the white chocolates—while they may look pretty, they only contain cocoa butter, and no cocoa powder.
Another way to get all of the good stuff without overdoing it on the not-so-good (sugar, calories) is to pass over the chocolates filled with nougat, marshmallows, and cookie crumbles in favor of chocolates with healthier, natural fillings. “If you choose chocolates with peanuts or almonds, there is a little added fat, but at least there is also added protein,” Banich says. Her favorite indulgence: Chocolate-dipped fruit—strawberries, melon, pineapple—like the kind you can get in a fruit bouquet.
And while you may have a little extra chocolate around the holidays, Banich says the rest of the year, sticking to two pieces of chocolate a day will give you all the health benefits without overdoing your calorie and fat intake for the day. “The important thing is not to deprive yourself during the holidays and then reach a breaking point where you’re going to binge,” she adds.