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Chocolate every morning: Doctor’s orders

Written By: Shelley Vanker, UT Physicians | Updated: February 13, 2024
Raw cube chocolate pieces and coffee with heart-shaped latte art.

A small amount of dark chocolate to your morning routine could have a range of health benefits.

This Valentine’s Day, go ahead and indulge on a little chocolate with your coffee. In fact, you should consider adding dark chocolate to your daily routine says John Higgins, MD, a sports cardiologist and professor with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston.

“Various parts of the cocoa bean are healthy,” said Higgins. “It is packed with antioxidants including things like flavonoids and polyphenols. It also tends to be high in fiber, iron, potassium, magnesium, and serotonin as well.”

Backed by science

 John Higgins, MD
John Higgins, MD

Referencing previous medical studies, he says chocolate has been shown to boost the function of the cardiovascular system.

“They would measure the artery function with this highly sensitive ultrasound and then they would have the person eat the dark chocolate and then they would remeasure the function and look at the boost,” Higgins said. “Likewise, there are some things that will drop the function, like smoking.”

Moreover, Higgins explained, the fiber content in cocoa helps lower cholesterol, while the antioxidants are known to release nitric oxide.  

“Nitric oxide is a very powerful stimulator of good things in the arteries and a protector against plaque,” said Higgins.

And there’s more, he says the increased cardiovascular activity means better blood flow which is linked to reduced dental issues, fewer wrinkles, and better memory.

And yes, he says chocolate can help improve your mood.

“It also has serotonin in it, which is a happy hormone. So, when you’re happy, your blood pressure is lower and you release other happy chemicals, which are also heart healthy.”

The darker the better

But there is a catch, he says to get the most out of your sweet treat, dark chocolate is recommended. Most scientific studies found the greatest health benefits using dark chocolate, meaning it has 70% cocoa.

“It’s not like you only received a benefit at 70%,” said Higgins. “There is a linear response, you know, like the higher you go, the greater the benefit.”

So, if you can’t stomach the bitter taste of chocolate that dark, he said it’s perfectly acceptable to start with less.

“If you want to start at 60%, you know that’s okay. You are still getting benefits from that,” said Higgins.

The goal he says, is to only eat dark chocolate, the higher the cocoa content, the more nutrition.

Portions are key

His prescription for adding chocolate to your daily routine comes with limits.

Do not finish a box of chocolates in one sitting. Do not eat copious amounts. Like anything, balance is key. To get the best health benefits from dark chocolate, only eat one serving a day. A serving size is around 40 grams or 1.4 ounces.

“If you eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, then you’re going to get a lot of the things that don’t help you, like excess sugar,” said Higgins.

Because caffeine is in the cocoa bean, he recommends a morning ritual.

“It is important to set a daily routine rather than having two bars of chocolate on the weekend,” he said.

Valentine’s Day or not, chocolate is on the menu – albeit with restrictions. Higgins encourages regular healthy habits like exercise, hydration, and sleep to round out your chocolate habit.

Happy eating.

As the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston, UT Physicians has locations across the Greater Houston area to serve the community. To schedule an appointment, call 888-4UT-DOCS.