Stroke is a leading cause of death and disability around the world. Fortunately, a few
smart lifestyle tweaks go a long way toward keeping the malady at bay. These
include maintaining a healthy body weight, eating plenty of vegetables and
fruit, limiting dietary sodium (salt) and processed and junk foods, exercising
regularly, avoiding tobacco, and keeping risk factors for heart disease, such
as high cholesterol and high blood pressure, under control. Reaching for a couple
of squares of chocolate each day may protect against stroke too.
Eat chocolate each day, keep the doctor away?
To study the connection between chocolate and stroke risk, researchers collected information on lifestyle habits from 37,103 Swedish men, tracking them for approximately 10 years.
From the 1,995 cases of stroke that occurred during the study period, the researchers found that after adjusting for other factors that can affect stroke risk—including smoking, height and weight, physical activity, high blood pressure, aspirin use, atrial fibrillation (a type of irregular heart rhythm), family history of heart attack, and dietary habits—men who ate 63 grams of chocolate per week had 17% lower risk of stroke compared with men who never ate chocolate.
The amount of chocolate associated with lower stroke risk averages out to just a square or two per day (63 grams of chocolate is about 2.2 ounces). The protective effects of chocolate were similar for both types of stroke—ischemic and hemorrhagic. Ischemic stroke occurs when a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain becomes blocked, while hemorrhagic stroke occurs when there is bleeding in or around the brain.
Smart steps against stroke
This study is observational, so it cannot prove cause and effect. It only tells us eating chocolate is associated with lower stroke risk, not that chocolate caused lower stroke risk. Still, chocolate contains nutrients, including magnesium and polyphenols, which may protect against vascular disease.
So long as you stick with high quality, pure chocolate—not chocolate baked goods—and you don’t gain weight from eating it, indulging may provide health benefits. Our tips will help you adopt a stroke risk reduction lifestyle, with or without the chocolate:
Go dark. Though 90% of the chocolate eaten in Sweden during the study period was milk chocolate—about 30% cocoa—most health experts agree the healthiest choice is dark chocolate. You get more of the healthful nutrients and less sugar with dark. Aim for 50% or greater cocoa content.
Tackle tobacco. One of the single most important things you can do to lower stroke risk is to quit smoking. Quitting is hard, but you can do it. Using smoking cessation aids, such as nicotine replacement and/or medication, along with a support group or structured quit program, improves the odds. Ask your doctor for more help.
Walk it off. A great way to lower stroke risk is to exercise regularly. Simply walking at a fast pace 30 minutes daily will provide benefit.
Get some color. Colorful vegetables and fruit are loaded with nutrients that protect the vascular system against damage. Eat the rainbow of fresh produce daily, including green, yellow, red, orange, purple, and white.
Manage risks. If you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, don’t ignore them. Treating these conditions will significantly lower stroke risk.
Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD, an author, speaker, and internationally recognized expert in chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, and nutrition, has taught medical, nursing, public health, and alternative medicine coursework. She has delivered over 150 invited lectures to health professionals and consumers and is the creator of a nutrition website acclaimed by the New York Times and Time magazine. Suzanne received her training in epidemiology and nutrition at the University of Michigan, School of Public Health at Ann Arbor.