PERKS: Dark chocolate may aid circulation, lower blood pressure. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)
All the love letters have been read, the little boxes with heart-shaped jewelry inside opened, and the prix fixe dinners and couples' massages are but a Valentine's Day memory. What's left, other than the waning roses on the table? Well, perhaps the consequences of a well-enjoyed box of chocolates ("Shoot! Are my jeans tighter this week?"), whether it was a box gifted to you or chocolate you bought for yourself to ease the pain of being single and surrounded by images of coupledom.
In the aftermath, if you're feeling even the least bit guilty about all of the chocolate that you ate, cheer up. Chocolate, in moderation, can give you a beauty and health boost — as can roses.
"Chocolate is actually a great food that is very, very good for you — but only dark chocolate," says Dr. Steven Pratt, a physician at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla who is a leading nutrition expert and author of several books, including "SuperFoods Rx: Fourteen Foods that Will Change Your Life." As an added perk, Pratt also explains what many of us already know instinctively: "Dark chocolate lights up the pleasure part of the brain — the same part that lights up when you have sex or something like that," he says. "It's a feel-good nutrient because it goes to the brain, and that's a pretty good deal."
Flavonoid-rich dark chocolate, made from the bean that is found in the fruit pod of the cacao tree, is said to decrease blood pressure. Pratt says the substance does this by relaxing blood vessels, "and once you lower blood pressure you lower your risk for a stroke or heart attack." At the same time, he says, dark chocolate can double blood and hydration to the skin — a terrific beauty benefit.
"When you get older, your skin starts to get drier and you get less moisture to the skin," Pratt says. "Baby skin is full of moisture. By the time you get to your 30s, 40s and 50s and beyond, you just think, ‘Oh, my god.'" He also believes that eating dark chocolate can decrease wrinkles and sun damage. "I give my skin cancer patients a handout on foods to boost the SPF of their skin to prevent future skin cancer, and dark chocolate, green tea, tomato paste all help to protect your skin."
Jim Hammer, a cosmetic chemist at Pharmasol Labs, lists even more dark chocolate benefits. "Chocolate is rich in natural antioxidants, lipid-replenishing essential fatty acids and skin-friendly minerals (like potassium, magnesium, copper)," he says. "It also contains a compound called theobromine, a close cousin of caffeine, which can have circulation-enhancing and cellulite-reducing effects."
Pratt says studies have shown that about 4 tablespoons of ground cocoa a day is best for maximum benefit. Other research says that as little as 6.7 grams of chocolate, equivalent to three small squares a week, can also be beneficial. If you prefer to consume your dark chocolate as a candy, Pratt says to look for 70% or more cocoa solids. "If they don't have the amount of cocoa solids on the label, go back and find something different," he says. One of his favorites is Endangered Species Extreme All Natural Dark Chocolate with 88% cocoa solids. A feel-good benefit: The company donates 10% of net profit to help endangered species.
Another easy way to consume dark chocolate for beauty and health benefits is via unsweetened, non- alkalized cocoa powder made of 100% ground-up beans. You can find it in Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, Erewhon Natural Foods Market and other health-food-friendly stores. Standard manufacturing of dark chocolate can destroy its all-important flavonoids, so it's important to eat nonalkalized brands processed with reduced heat. Pratt also recommends hot chocolate made from 8 ounces of soy milk with 4 tablespoons of ground cocoa powder and a teaspoon of an organic dark honey.
Pratt and Hammer both say dark chocolate has not been proved effective when used as a topical treatment, so it's no use making a face mask out of your leftover chocolate confections. Also, "sugars can encourage the growth of bacteria and potentially lead to breakouts," Hammer says. "In other words, you need to eat it for maximum effect."
But that other Valentine's Day staple, the rose, turns out to be a terrific topical ingredient. Rose oil contains natural antioxidants and is composed of many different chemical compounds, some of which have astringent, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effects, Hammer says. Rose products are sometimes recommended for dry or sensitive skin, and the fragrance has "antidepressant aromatherapy benefits," Hammer says. Organic rose products are most effective because they don't contain pesticides. But Valentine's Day roses are rarely organic, so don't try making a homemade beauty treatment out of them. "It will probably be far more effective to simply purchase beauty products which contain natural rose oil and save your fresh rose petals for sprinkling in the bath, on the sheets, etc.," Hammer says.