By Kathy Cunningham

Valentine’s Day has us thinking of sweets! But your first thought may be “too many unhealthy calories.”

The good news is there is a sweet, dark chocolate which is healthy. A large study out of Harvard, published in 2010, found that women who ate about three ounces of chocolate a day had a 32 percent lower risk of heart failure than women who ate no chocolate.

We gain these benefits because chocolate is made from plants, which means it contains many of the health benefits of dark vegetables and some fruits. Dark chocolate is naturally rich in flavonoids (or more specifically, flavanols, a sub-class of these antioxidants).

• These compounds have been shown to relax and lower blood pressure and help protect against heart disease.
• A small bar (about three ounces) everyday can help keep your heart and cardiovascular system running well.
• Dark chocolate has also been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) by up to 10 percent.

Select dark chocolate that has 65 percent or higher cocoa content, because that means far more antioxidants than milk or white chocolate. Milk and white chocolate cannot make any health claims, because they contain greater percentages of cocoa butter fat. In actuality, by definition, white chocolate is not actually chocolate. White chocolate contains cocoa butter, a product of the cocoa bean that is also used to produce chocolate. The cocoa butter, which does have a faint chocolate flavor, is combined with milk, sugar, and flavoring ingredients such as vanilla in order to create the creamy confection known as white chocolate.

So for the most flavor and health benefits stick to dark chocolate.

Chocolate also holds benefits apart from protecting your heart:

• it tastes good
• it stimulates endorphin production, which gives a feeling of pleasure
• it contains serotonin, which acts as an anti-depressant

Now you might be asking yourself…

Doesn’t Chocolate Have a lot of Fat?

Here is some more good news – some of the fats in chocolate do not impact your cholesterol. The fats in chocolate are 1/3 oleic acid, 1/3 stearic acid and 1/3 palmitic acid:

• Oleic Acid is a healthy monounsaturated fat that is also found in olive oil.
• Stearic Acid is a saturated fat but one which research is shows has a neutral effect on cholesterol.
• Palmitic Acid is also a saturated fat, one which raises cholesterol and heart disease risk.

That means only 1/3 of the fat in dark chocolate is bad for you.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind as we indulge on Valentine’s Day.

– Balance the calories:

Just because dark chocolate has some health benefits, doesn’t mean that you should eat a pound of chocolate. Chocolate is still a high-calorie, high-fat food. Most of the research that indicates the benefits used no more than 3.5 ounces of dark chocolate a day.

One bar of dark chocolate has around 400 calories. If you eat half a bar of chocolate a day, you must balance at least 200 calories by eating less of something else. Cut out other sweets or snacks and replace them with chocolate to keep your total calories the same.

– Skip the nougats and other fillings:

You should look for pure dark chocolate or dark chocolate with nuts, orange peel, or other flavorings. Avoid anything with caramel, nougat, or fillings. These fillings are just adding sugar and fat which erase many of the benefits you get from eating the chocolate.

– Avoid Milk with chocolate:

It may taste good, but some research shows that washing your chocolate down with a glass of milk could prevent the antioxidants being absorbed or used by your body. The findings indicate that milk may interfere with the absorption of antioxidants from chocolate … and may therefore negate the potential health benefits that can be derived from eating moderate amounts of dark chocolate.

The good news is, when the urge to eat chocolate strikes, it’s fine to allow ourselves an occasional ounce of flavanol-rich dark chocolate. We do, however, want to be careful of the other chocolate treats that may contain lots of calories.

Try making these lower fat versions of some of our favorite chocolate treats. They’ll make us feel good, and it may even do some good, too:

Low Fat Chocolate Truffles
Reduced-Fat Chocolate Pudding
Chocolate Dipped Strawberries
Low Fat Chocolate Chip Cookies
Low Fat Fudge Brownies

Kathy Cunningham is a registered dietitian at the Boston Public Health Commission.