Yes, it’s true: a new study from BMJ.com finds that eating chocolate is no sin. In fact, it was associated with a 37% lower risk of developing heart disease.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for more than a quarter of all adult deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Doctors keep reminding us that much of that risk can be prevented by making heart-healthy lifestyle changes, such as eating a low-fat, high-fiber diet, quitting smoking and exercising.
Now the new study, which is a review of seven previous studies involving more than 100,000 people, suggests that eating chocolate could potentially offer some benefit too.
Dr. Oscar Franco and his colleagues from the University of Cambridge analyzed observational studies examining the association between chocolate consumption and cardiovascular outcomes. Five of the seven studies showed some benefit to eating chocolate. Overall, people with the highest chocolate consumption levels had 37% lower risk of heart disease and a 29% lower risk of stroke than those who ate the least chocolate.
It’s not clear why, but some past studies have attributed chocolate’s heart benefits to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, which may help blood pressure and improve insulin resistance.
That’s certainly happy news for chocoholics, but the researchers caution that the data do not confirm that eating chocolate necessarily leads to a healthier heart: randomized, controlled trials are needed to show that it’s the chocolate — and not other factors that may be common to chocolate lovers, such as, say, a heart-healthy diet or higher physical activity levels — that actually causes a reduction in cardiovascular risk.
Plus, the authors note, much of the chocolate available on the market contains large amounts of fat, sugar and calories, which can contribute to weight gain and an increased risk of diabetes if consumers overindulge — that can undermine any benefits that chocolate might have on the heart.
And while the studies included in the review didn’t differentiate between dark or milk chocolate, and included candy bars, cookies and other desserts in the assessment, the researchers suggest that reduced-calorie and reduced-sugar chocolate may be a way for chocolate-lovers to enjoy the benefits of chocolate without its potentially unhealthy effects.
In addition to being published on BMJ.com, the findings are presented today at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in Paris.