If you’re a chocolate lover, then that latest research might justify indulging in this treat on a regular basis. The pooled results from seven studies showed that those who ate the most chocolate had lower rates of heart disease and stroke.
Observational and experimental studies have showed that chocolate consumption has a positive influence on cardiovascular health. Cocoa, the key ingredient in chocolate, contains flavanols. These phytonutrients exert a number of beneficial effects including antioxidant, antihypertensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-atherogenic and anti-thrombotic.
In this study, researchers aimed to evaluate the association between chocolate consumption and the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Seven studies involving over 114,000 men and women were included in the systematic review. Participants ranged in age from 25 to 93 years and included men and women. The range of time for follow up was between eight and sixteen years.
Of the seven, one was a cross sectional study done in the U.S.; the others were cohort studies conducted in Europe or Asia. All of the studies examined chocolate consumption in a different manner so researchers used just the highest and lowest categories of consumption.
In five of the seven studies, high chocolate consumption was associated with a 37% decrease in cardiovascular disease and a 29% decrease in stroke. Only one study showed a 31% reduction in diabetes. No significant association was seen in relation to heart failure.
With such limited data, lead researcher Oscar H. Franco, M.D. and his team were cautious about interpreting the results. The studies included consumption of chocolate bars, drinks, biscuits and desserts. But, the review didn’t provide information on the type or amount of chocolate consumed to obtain these benefits. In the absence of this information, Dr. Franco suspects that dark chocolate is the preferred type.
The benefits of consuming a high level of chocolate (dark or otherwise) would probably be offset by the fat, sugar and calorie content of commercially available chocolate products. As the researchers pointed out, excessive consumption of chocolate would probably lead to weight gain, a risk factor for hypertension, dyslipidemia, diabetes and cardiometabolic disorders in general.
Due to the small numbers and nature of the studies, other variables could not be analyzed. Clinical trials which use a control group along with a treatment group would better control for these factors to better assess cause and effect.
The Bottom Line
I’m a bit cautious of pooled study results especially when so much variability exists between studies. In the final seven studies used for pooling results chocolate intake was either recorded by participants or determined via food questionnaires. This presents all sorts of problems especially when the food in question is considered a vice.
Despite these challenges, it’s well-known that cacao and cocoa are loaded in phytonutrients like so many other fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and tea. Unfortunately, most chocolate products also contain ingredients that aren’t health promoting, tipping the scale in the other direction.
As with many things in life, moderation is key. A good approach is to eat healthy most of the time. Then, add the more indulgent foods like red wine, dark chocolate and coffee in moderation to obtain their health benefits and please your senses.
Personally, I live my life by what my grandmother (who lived to be 105 years) used to say, “A little bit of what you fancy does you good.” So, I drink 2-3 cups of coffee a day and drink a glass of wine at dinner. And, just about every evening I eat one piece of Ghirardelli dark chocolate.
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.