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Chocolate for Valentine’s Day? Sure, in moderation

Editor's note: This story originally published Feb. 8, 2012.

A match made in heaven? Or opposites attract?

February is National Heart Month, with a focus on food and fitness to keep our tickers ticking. Meanwhile, this is the month for valentines to salute the day with the traditional heart-shaped box of chocolates.

Now you may have heard that chocolate can be good for you. But dietitian Dave Grotto, author of “101 Optimal Life Foods” (Bantam Books, 2010), says picking the right kind of chocolate is just as important as choosing the right valentine. “Chocolate is good for you may be a bit of a stretch, depending on the quantity and quality of the chocolate you eat,” he said.

The secret is in the cocoa, which contains healthy plant compounds called flavonoids. According to research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, flavonoids can suppress low-density lipoprotein -- so-called “bad” cholesterol -- therefore protecting against heart disease.

Dark chocolate contains more cocoa and less sugar than milk chocolate; that’s why nutrition experts recommend you go for dark chocolate confections. But Grotto cautions against eating too much of any kind of chocolate since it’s high in fat and calories can add up.

“Eating an entire large bar of chocolate may offset its health benefits even if the bar contains flavanols," he said. "Shoot for no more than 1 ounce every day.”

Dipped in chocolate

The aroma and romance of chocolate extend beyond the candy box. This month, in honor of Valentine’s Day, the Mansion on Peachtree features chocolate on menus in the cafe and the spa. While executive chef Colin Quirk whips up Valrhona chocolate fondue in the Mansion Café, the beauty experts in Spa 29 pamper guests with a “chocolate melt massage,” a chocolate sugar scrub, and for couples a “silky chocolate soak for two.”

Chocolate-covered strawberries served in the spa are a bit of a treatment, too. The strawberries provide vitamin C, which is good for your skin, and just a touch of chocolate calms cravings at about 50 calories per luscious berry.

There's more to love

A roundup of research on chocolate -- involving more than 100,000 people -- published in the British Medical Journal found that chocolate consumption was linked to lower rates of stroke, blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. While there was no beneficial effect on the risk of diabetes, the report showed that those in the group that consumed the most chocolate had 37 percent less risk of any cardiovascular disorder and 29 percent less risk for stroke.

Here’s how Grotto shows his chocolate love for Valentine’s Day: “All the ladies in this ‘Guy-a-titian’s’ life love chocolate. My three daughters are thrilled when I bust the myth about chocolate’s connection to acne -- so they enjoy every bite -- but always have an eye on portion size. I love having individually wrapped ½- to 1-ounce pieces of chocolate around. You know exactly what a proper portion is without having to commit to a big bar.” In the evening, it’s hot cocoa for the girls while the parents curl up on the couch with chocolate martinis.

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” Email her at carolyn@carolynoneil.com.

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