By Lisa C. Cohn, R.D.
msnbc.com contributor
updated 2/13/2007 6:23:57 PM ET 2007-02-13T23:23:57

Linda, a 38-year-old mother of three, was so anxious to lose weight she promised to follow any meal plan I recommended. "But can I still have my chocolate?" she pleaded.

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A noted New York cardiologist wanted to know what to say when his patients ask him which chocolate to eat for their hearts.

Chocolate is certainly one of the "it" foods of the moment, with numerous studies praising the sweet stuff for its heart-loving goodness. Not only do we have more kinds of chocolate bars than ever to choose from, there's chocolate soup and even chocolate pizza. It's only a matter of time before someone bathes in it!

But can the sweet stuff that's synonymous with Valentine's Day really protect your heart and fit into a weight-loss program? Well, yes, but not all chocolate is the same.

If you’re going to indulge on Feb. 14 or any other day, go for the purest dark chocolate you can find. That's the kind loaded with flavonoids — antioxidant chemicals that help prevent cell damage, reduce clot formation and improve blood sugar levels. The cacao plant, which is what chocolate is made from, contains the same antioxidants — including catechins and phenols — found in red wine, apples, onions and grapes.

Look for bars with at least 60 percent cocoa solids (some brands of dark chocolate contain as much as 75 percent). Milk chocolate has fewer flavonoids than dark, and white chocolate has almost none.

As an added treat, chocolate also contains caffeine and other chemicals that help boost mood and may ease women's premenstrual symptoms.

We don't yet know the exact amount of chocolate to eat for maximum health effect, but three-quarters of an ounce provides an equal amount (400 milligrams) of antioxidants as a glass of red wine. As my friend Jim said at his 40th birthday party while he toasted guests with red wine and chocolate cake, "Cheers! Antioxidants never tasted so good."

Moderation is key
But don't overdo it every day. One-third of an ounce of chocolate — that's about two squares of a bar — can satisfy a craving without blowing your diet.

Dark chocolate can be loaded with calories, saturated fat and sugar. An ounce has about 150 calories. And it isn't necessarily the best source of flavonoids, either. You can get similar antioxidants from vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Unlike chocolate, they are low-fat, low-cholesterol, high-fiber and caffeine-free. Still, the type of fat in chocolate, called stearic acid, does not seem to raise blood cholesterol levels the way animal fats do.

For chocolate lovers who want permission to make a Valentine’s Day treat into a daily dose of chocolate year-round, moderation is key. Here are some figure-friendly ways to get your daily chocolate fix:

  • Sprinkle some chocolate chips in a bowl of oatmeal or cereal.
  • Nibble on a few chocolate pieces with cottage cheese and fruit.
  • Smear a little chocolate spread on whole-grain bread or crackers with sliced banana.
  • Dip celery, fruit or cut-up vegetables in a chocolate fondue.

When you get a craving, it's better to satisfy it with one of these suggestions than to deny yourself chocolate altogether. If you deprive yourself all day, you might end up gorging on a whole bar just before bed.

As researchers continue to explore the ways dark chocolate is good for your heart and your head, rest assured that you can indulge a bit this Valentine's Day and still enjoy a guilt-free holiday.

Lisa C. Cohn is a registered dietitian with over 20 years experience in nutrition research and training. She is president of Park Avenue Nutrition Spa, a services and consulting group in New York.

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