Don’t think twice about giving chocolate as presents. Your loved ones will thank you for providing them with a great-tasting comfort food that is also good for their overall health.

Aztec and Mayan cultures have enjoyed cocoa beans since the 12th century, but scientists have been discovering exciting new health benefits of chocolate over the past two decades.

Here are 9 great reasons you shouldn’t feel guilty about giving this satisfying treat (especially the dark variety) as Valentine’s Day gifts to friends and lovers.

1. Chocolate improves cognitive performance

Eating chocolate on a regular basis can lead to better cognitive function — including brain activities such as reasoning, memory, attention and language. A report in Appetite noted that chocolate consumption was associated with cognitive performance, regardless of other dietary habits.

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2. It’s good for the heart

Dark chocolate helps restore the flexibility of arteries as well as prevent white blood cells from sticking to the walls of blood vessels. In a study published in The Faseb Journal, scientists discovered that eating dark chocolate is good for the heart, and it can play a good part in battling atherosclerosis, a disease associated with plaque build up inside the arteries.

3. Reduces chances of stroke

Eating a small amount of chocolate each day could prevent diabetes and insulin resistance. Daily chocolate consumption was also linked to a lower risk of stroke, reported in the British Journal of Nutrition last year.

4. Reduces memory decline

Drinking two cups of hot chocolate a day may help stop memory decline and keep the brain healthy. A Harvard Medical School study discovered that hot chocolate helped improve blood flow to essential parts of the brain, suggesting chocolate (and improved blood flow) can improve memory and cognition. Different areas of the brain require more energy to complete their tasks, and they also need greater blood flow. This relationship (neurovascular coupling) may also play an important role in fighting diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

5. Mineral abundance

Dark chocolate is loaded with a healthy collection of beneficial minerals such as potassium, zinc and selenium. A 100-gram bar of dark chocolate (70 percent or more) provides 67 percent of the RDA of iron, an important component of hemoglobin, which helps red blood cells carry oxygen from lungs throughout the body.

6. See you later, bad cholesterol

It’s been observed that eating cocoa can reduce levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and raise levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL), thus lowering the possibility of suffering from cardiovascular disease. In a study by Tokyo’s Ochanomizu University, 25 healthy Japanese men with normal or mildly high cholesterol levels were assigned to drink cocoa with sugar for 12 weeks. As a result, they experienced a 24 percent rise in their good cholesterol levels. But the cocoa they drank wasn’t your typical store-bought kind. The researchers bought, roasted, cracked and ground the cacao beans in their lab.

7. Healthy skin too!

It used to be a common misconception that chocolate was the cause of skin acne breakouts. But that myth has been debunked. Today’s science has shown that dark chocolate is a great source of flavonols — a group of plant metabolites that have excellent antioxidant effects. These flavonols can fight against skin damage. Flavonoids also fight free radicals (molecules that have lost an electron and attack DNA, enzymes and proteins or cell membranes) in the bloodstream. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can skip wearing sunscreen if you eat dark chocolate.

8. Less stress for moms

According to a recent Finnish study, eating chocolate reduced stress in expectant mothers. Even more fascinating, the babies of these chocolate-eating moms smiled more than those of non-chocolate-eating parents!

9. Chocolate helps you feel better

Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), which is the same chemical that your brain creates when you feel like you’re falling in love. PEA encourages your brain to release feel-good endorphins.

Make sure to try and buy pure chocolate as many name brand chocolate companies sell diluted chocolate. Also, don’t forget that chocolate does have a high calorie count and can contain large amounts of sugar. Moderation is key, even when it comes to chocolate.

If you’re curious as to what foods can be beneficial for you, reach out to your primary care physician for advice. If you are local to Southern California and are in search of a primary care physician, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/ to schedule an appointment.

By Ramin Zahed