March 26, 2012 at 4:38 PM ET
It sounds too good to be true, but eating chocolate may help you keep slim, a new study suggests.
The results show people who eat chocolate frequently have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who consume the treat less regularly, the researchers say. Body mass index is a ratio of weight to height and is considered an indicator of body fatness.
The link was found despite the fact that frequent chocolate eaters tended to consume more calories overall, and did not make up for this with additional exercise. The findings suggest something in chocolate may make the calories you eat less likely to be deposited as fat, said Dr. Beatrice Golomb, associate professor in the department of medicine at the University of California, San Diego. "It's really like all of your calories count a little bit less," Golomb said.
But don't go raid the chocolate aisle just yet. The researchers only found an association, not a direct cause-effect link. A more detailed study that measures people's chocolate consumption, weight and health in better detail, is needed before researchers will know whether eating chocolate is really causing the slimness, experts say.
In addition, when the researchers looked at both amount and frequency, they found that people who ate a large amount of chocolate a lot of the time tended to have slightly higher BMIs compared with those who ate less chocolate less frequently.
"This does not provide free license to eat 30 pounds of chocolate every time you eat chocolate," Golomb, said.
The study is published today (March 26) in the journal Archives of Medicine. Another researcher not involved in the study doesn't think the conclusions are valid, suggesting there may be a confounding factor (rather than chocolate consumption) that gives chocolate eaters a slim advantage.
Eating chocolate, especially dark chocolate, has known health benefits : it has been linked with a decrease in blood pressure and improvements in the ability of the body to respond to the hormone insulin. The researchers wondered whether the benefits of chocolate might offset the higher number of calories it usually contains.
Golomb and colleagues examined surveys from nearly 1,000 adult men and women, ages 20 to 85 with an average age of 57, living in San Diego. Participants were asked how many times a week they ate chocolate, and had their weight and height measured.
Participants who ate chocolate more than the average of twice a week had lower BMIs than less frequent eaters.
Though the researchers aren't sure of the cause, they do know that chocolate contains polyphenols, which, in animal studies have been found to increase the number of energy-burning mitochondria inside cells and improve blood flow. Both of these factors could boost metabolism and prevent weight gain, Golomb said.
Other experts were not convinced by the findings.
If polyphenols were behind the chocolate-slimness link, the chocolate eaten would need to have a high polyphenol content, like that found in pure cocoa, said Katherine Tallmadge, a registered dietitian and author of "Diet Simple" (LifeLine Press, 2011).In all likelihood, participants were eating processed chocolate with a much lower polyphenol content, Tallmadge said.
"I can't imagine that chocolate just eaten 'off the street' would have those levels of [polyphenols] and would produce those kinds of results," Tallmadge said.
In addition, the results were based on questionnaires, which are not a very precise way to assess chocolate consumption, Tallmadge said.
"I just don’t think this study is done in a way that conclusions can be made for human health," Tallmadge told MyHealthNewsDaily.
If you want to eat chocolate for health, unsweetened cocoa is the best way to go, Tallmadge said. The more cocoa is processed, the less polyphenols it contains, and the lower its health benefit, she said.
If eaten for fun, you should try to limit calories from non-nutritious foods, or extras, to 10 percent of your daily intake, Tallmadge said. So if you consume 2,000 calories per day, eating a 200-calorie bar of chocolate "shouldn’t be a problem," she said.
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