In what may be the best news about chocolate since perhaps its discovery, a new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine shows an association between more frequent chocolate consumption and lower body mass index (BMI).
A group of researchers at the University of California, San Diego, led by associate professor Dr. Beatrice Golomb and funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, analyzed the chocolate consumption frequency of nearly 1,000 people.
The participants ranged from 20 to 85 years old (average 57 years) and 68% were male. Their average BMI was 28, which made them overweight but not obese (BMI of 30-35), and all subjects exercised about three times a week.
Interestingly, the results showed that people who ate chocolate more frequently – an average of twice a week – often had lower BMIs than other participants who consumed it less often. Frequent chocolate eaters weighed 5 – 7 lbs. less than their non-chocolate-eating counterparts.
Researchers adjusted the data to account for variables such as age, gender, education, fruit and vegetable consumption, and fat and calorie intake, but the findings were surprising because the “chocoholics” were thinner despite consuming more calories and fat and without exercising more than the others.
Rather than the total amount of chocolate eaten, it was how often it was eaten that was associated with lower BMI. In the study, the type of chocolate participants consumed was not specified.
Because the results counter what would be expected when looking at caloric intake alone, researchers suggest that the character and quantity of calories has an impact on metabolism. They note previous studies, which show that chocolate can produce benefits with relation to insulin sensitivity, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and cardiovascular health and mortality.
Health Benefits of Dark Chocolate
But this isn’t the first time that chocolate – specifically, dark chocolate – has been positively correlated to health. Dark chocolate has also been linked to:
Elevated mood. Eating dark chocolate has been shown to evoke a positive emotional response in women – and it does the job better than apples can.
Skin protection. Dark chocolate contains antioxidants called flavanols which can protect skin from the effects of UV rays. But think of it as a supplementary benefit, and keep wearing sunscreen for maximum protection.
Making you fuller, faster. A 50 g serving of 70 – 85% dark chocolate has 5.5 g of fiber, 60 – 69% dark chocolate has 4 g of fiber, and 45 – 59% dark chocolate has 3.5 g of fiber. Fiber makes you feel fuller and this helps prevent overeating.
Improved blood flow. Those wonderful flavanols also improve blood flow, which helps us see better, feel more alert, and think more clearly.
Reduced coughing. Dark chocolate also contains a compound called theobromine that inhibits the nerve activity that causes coughing, giving us hope for non-opioid cough medicines in the future.
Decreased Stroke Risk. Frequent dark chocolate consumption has also been linked to a reduced risk of stroke in women, and flavanols may help prevent stroke damage.
But don’t go out and eat excessive amounts of chocolate every day, warns Dr. Golomb. The study doesn’t prove that chocolate consumption will actually help people lose weight. Instead, it tells us “the composition of calories, not just the number of them, matters for determining ultimate weight.”
The Bottom Line
While the study might not give us permission to eat chocolate without restrictions and still lose weight, it does give us something to think about when it comes to where our calories come from and how enjoying healthful versions of favorite foods in moderation can have a positive effect.
Diets that withhold all sweets are much more difficult to follow, and many people often end up cheating as a result. Rewarding ourselves for achieving fitness goals with small, controlled amounts of healthy cheats like dark chocolate can help us stay on track with weight loss.
But remember to make sure that the chocolate we treat ourselves with is dark or bittersweet chocolate – at least 60% cacao or higher – because conventional milk chocolate loses most of its antioxidants (including flavanols) and phytochemicals during processing, canceling out any potential health benefits. It also contains less fiber, meaning it will take more of it to make us feel satisfied, and that simply adds on to the calories and fat we consume.
A 1 oz. serving of dark chocolate, which has about 164 calories, might be a nice bonus after a particularly good weigh-in. Or you can add a bit of unsweetened cocoa powder to your morning coffee, shake, or smoothie for a boost of chocolate flavor. Get creative – cocoa powder, cinnamon, and a bit of natural sweetener can make oatmeal more like a treat, and a healthier, homemade version of Nutella is just begging to be made!
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.