As Forrest Gump iconically stated: "Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

However, I have rarely met a chocolate I did not love. And here is some "yummy" news about chocolate sure to fill our hearts with even more warmth and happiness (especially as we see those chocolate bunnies hopping down the bunny trail in time for Easter.).

While not quite a vegetable, chocolate is derived from the cocoa plant and contains some of the health benefits of dark vegetables. Chocolate is rich in flavanol, an antioxidant that protects the body from damage caused by free radicals that are formed by normal bodily processes. In fact, chocolate contains nearly eight times the amount of antioxidants found in strawberries. Anyone up for chocolate-dipped strawberries?

Here's Dr. Nina's What You Need to Know about Chocolate, our key to happiness and health:

•Heart health benefits: You may have heard it said, "Forget love, I'd rather fall in chocolate." Fortunately, we may not have to choose between chocolate and a healthy heart. Flavonol relaxes blood vessels and can lower blood pressure. Additionally, it has been shown to decrease "bad cholesterol" levels and the ability to form clots that can cause blockages in blood vessels. What this translates to is decreased levels of heart attacks and atherosclerosis (fatty plaques inside your vessels).

•Weight: In a perfect world, chocolate would have no calories. While this may not be the case, there is some good news: dark chocolate provides a sense of satiety, or feeling full. By decreasing our cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods, it functions as an "appetite suppressant" and can decrease our overall consumption throughout the day. However, this news does not give us carte blanche to consume as much chocolate as we want. Because chocolate still contains fat and calories, moderation is the key to get the best of both worlds.

•Pregnancy: Could a balanced diet for the pregnant woman mean dark chocolate in both hands? Studies have shown women who consumed dark chocolate daily during their pregnancy were better able to handle stress, had babies who smiled more and were happier, and had a decreased incidence of pre-eclampsia. Pre-eclampsia is a dangerous complication of pregnancy where blood pressures become elevated and protein is found in the urine.

•Stress reduction: Keep calm and eat … and smell … chocolate. Eating dark chocolate has been shown to increase our "feel good" chemicals in our brain. Additionally, it decreases stress hormone levels. Studies also have shown that just the smell of chocolate can increase certain brain waves and trigger relaxation. So, while "you can't buy happiness, you can buy chocolate, and that's kind of the same thing."

•Sun protection: In addition to applying sunscreen, consuming dark chocolate can decrease sunburn and keep our skin smoother, thicker, less rough, less scaly and moister. The antioxidant effects of dark chocolate are believed to counteract the free radicals that are generated as a consequence of exposure to UV radiation.

•Cough: While your doctor may not prescribe chocolate for that cough, it may function as a home remedy. Chocolate contains a compound called theobromine that appears to suppress coughing almost as effectively as codeine. In addition to being delightful to your taste buds, chocolate lacks codeine's side effects of feeling sleepy or dull.

Chocolate is near and dear to our hearts. And with its potential for a number of health benefits, chocolate does not have to be a forbidden love, guilty pleasure or given up. But like with anything, moderation is key. And so aptly stated, our love for chocolate may be the key to happiness and health. Like Forrest, I may not be a smart woman, "but I know what love is."

Dr Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions on general medical topics to her at drninaradcliff@aol.com