Can Eating Chocolate Help Keep You Slim?

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When it comes to chocolate, you might just be able to have your sweet and eat it, too.

That’s what researchers report in the first study to balance all of the known health benefits and harms of chocolate. Publishing in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Dr. Beatrice Golomb and her colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, say that the sweet’s extra calories may be more than offset by its positive effect on other conditions, such as heart disease, blood pressure and glucose control.

Most notably, the team found that people who reported eating chocolate more frequently were thinner than those who ate less, as measured by their body mass index (BMI). Golomb says that based on previous studies documenting the health benefits of chocolate, she expected that these metabolic benefits might, at best, compensate for the extra calories. “I wasn’t expecting that BMI would be favorable,” says Golomb. “That was a nice surprise.”

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Golomb’s team asked 1,000 men and women how much chocolate they consumed in a week, and recorded how much exercise they did over the same time period. Eating chocolate five times a week was linked to a 1-point drop in BMI, though the amount of chocolate the participants ate did not seem to have a significant effect on weight. The chocolate-lovers’ lower BMI also could not be accounted for by exercise or eating less overall. It “clearly wasn’t explained by the fact that people who ate chocolate ate less food, because they ate more. And they didn’t exercise more than those who didn’t eat as much chocolate,” says Golomb. “So there is no evidence that this effect can be explained by any confounder we looked at.”

The results certainly don’t prove that eating chocolate every day will make you lose weight, but they do raise interesting questions about how better to interpret the benefits of chocolate. Previous studies have focused specifically on its individual benefits, such as the ability of its antioxidants to lower LDL, or bad cholesterol, levels, or the role that chocolate’s flavenols can play in lowering blood pressure and improving blood flow by inhibiting clotting processes. Even the primary fat in chocolate, cocoa butter, isn’t such a health problem because it is made up of stearic acid, which does not raise cholesterol levels, says Golomb. She says it’s important to consider all of these metabolic effects together to get a sense of the net effect that chocolate has on the body. Overall, that effect seems to be a positive one.

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Golomb is hoping to conduct further research on whether different types of chocolate, such as dark or milk chocolate, may have stronger or weaker effects on BMI, but in the meantime, she says the results “should reduce the guilt associated with regular modest chocolate consumption. We should feel a little better about eating chocolate until there is additional data.” Sometimes, it seems, (chocolate) dreams do come true.

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Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.


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