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Dr. Andrea Moyer, St. Luke's Hospital

One way to a healthy heart: Moderate amounts of dark chocolate

With Valentine's Day approaching, it is no secret that the way to a woman's heart is often chocolate. What you may not know, however, is that recent studies show certain types of chocolate can make hearts healthier, too.

This is great news for women in our community. The American Heart Association has listed St. Louis as having one of the nation's highest rates of heart-related deaths in women. Therefore, any new data to guide dietary choices is crucial.

The key is dark chocolate. Dark chocolate contains antioxidants called flavonoids. Due to different cocoa bean processing, these beneficial flavonoids are less abundant or essentially absent in milk and white chocolate. Research has shown that flavonoids have the ability to lower blood pressure, lower bad cholesterol, improve blood vessel dilation, increase insulin sensitivity and prevent blood clots - reducing the chance of stroke and heart attack.

You may even live longer after a cardiac event if you eat dark chocolate. One observational study in Switzerland published in 2009 found that heart attack survivors who ate dark chocolate a couple times a week had a reduced chance of dying from a cardiac event over an eight-year period. Although the structure of the study was limited, it raises interest in studying this issue further.

When considering adding dark chocolate to your diet, remember these two important points: 1. Eat dark chocolate in moderation to avoid adding too many calories to your diet; 2. Avoid dark chocolate with high fat ingredients like nuts and caramel.

There is still debate regarding how much dark chocolate is sufficient to create heart benefits, but one experiment suggested eating a 1.6 ounce bar of dark chocolate a day. The safest recommendation is to use dark chocolate as a healthy snack in moderation a couple times a week in conjunction with a healthy low fat, low salt diet including plenty of fiber, fruits and vegetables.

Dr. Andrea Moyer is a board certified cardiologist at Cardiac Specialists of St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-205-6699 or visit her Meet the Doctor page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 11, 2010.