By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
According to a new study healthy individuals who exercise and also eat chocolate regularly tend to have a lower body mass index than those who eat chocolate less often.
The US survey of a population of more than 1000 adults, published as a research letter in the Archives on Internal Medicine, reinforces the idea that chocolate packs heart healthy benefits, despite its high calorie and sugar content. For the study the participants reported eating chocolate an average of twice a week and exercising an average of 3.6 times a week. Their average age was 57.
Results showed that those who said they ate chocolate more often than the norm tended to have a lower ratio of weight over height or Body Mass Index (BMI), a calculation made by taking a person's weight and dividing it by their height times two. A normal BMI is typically 18.5 to 24.9, while people who figure lower are considered underweight and those above 25 are overweight.
“Adults who consumed chocolate more frequently had a lower BMI than those who consumed chocolate less often,” said the study led by Beatrice Golomb and colleagues at the University of California San Diego. “Our findings - that more frequent chocolate intake is linked to lower BMI - are intriguing,” it added. Researchers are urging more detailed research and perhaps a randomised clinical trial of chocolate's metabolic benefits.
Dr. Golomb said the weight difference among more frequent chocolate eaters was modest but interesting given that more calories and saturated fat were consumed. Chocolate contains fat in the form of stearic acid. “It's my favorite vegetable,” Dr. Golomb says. She explains that chocolate contains antioxidants like epicatechin, which other research has shown appears to boost the energy-producing elements of the body's cells.
However, experts warn, “Before you start eating a chocolate bar a day to keep the doctor away, remember that a chocolate bar can contain over 200 calories which mostly come from saturated fats and sugar.” This warning came from Nancy Copperman, director of Public Health Initiatives at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in New York. “Consider limiting your chocolate fix to a one ounce (28 grams) portion of dark chocolate or adding cocoa powder which is very low in fat to your food once a day,” said Ms Copperman, who was not involved in the study.
Chocolate's benefits are rooted in antioxidant polyphenols which can improve blood pressure, and also help lower cholesterol levels and blood sugar. Other studies have even linked chocolate to a lower risk of death by heart attack. According to Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, who was not involved in the study the actual benefit came from the fact that chocolate was a part of a lifestyle that includes exercise and moderation in diet. “We have seen in multiple studies the benefits of chocolate, and yet again, we see as part of an overall healthy lifestyle, chocolate does not add to weight gain, but in fact, might help control it,” she said.
Lauren Graf, a nutritionist at Montefiore Medical Center, in Bronx, N.Y., said if a person is going to eat chocolate, a daily dose of dark chocolate “probably is the best way to go.” Dark chocolate has a higher concentration of antioxidants than milk chocolate and tends to have less sugar. Many nutritionists and doctors suggest sticking to about an ounce of chocolate a day—less than a regular-size chocolate bar. A 1.44-ounce sized bar of Dove dark chocolate, for example, contains 220 calories with 120 of those calories coming from fat, according to the label.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health.