Chocolate Helps the Heart — But Not If You Eat It Everyday

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Chocolate can certainly make you feel better, and the evidence continues to grow that it may do the body good as well — but only, natch, in moderation.

Researchers in Boston and Stockholm found that women in a large Swedish study who consumed one to two servings of chocolate a week enjoyed a 32% lower risk of heart failure than those who ate no chocolate at all during the nine year trial. The women who indulged a bit less, consuming one to three servings a month, reduced their odds of heart failure by 26%. But interestingly, the volunteers who maintained a daily chocolate fix did not enjoy any protective benefit, and instead showed similar heart risks as those who abstained from the treats.

The results, say lead author Dr. Murray Mittleman, highlight the delicate balance between the health benefits and health risks of a food as calorie dense as chocolate. “It appears that somewhere around daily servings, we start to see the complete loss of any beneficial effect,” he says.

The added calories, which can cause metabolic changes that promote heart disease, may begin to overwhelm whatever benefits that flavonoids, a compound found in the cacao plant from which chocolate is made, may provide. In other studies, researchers have shown that flavonoids may enhance blood flow by relaxing blood vessels and lowering blood pressure. Flavonoids, which are polyphenols, may also inhibit clumping of platelets, and reduce inflammation, both of which can lower risk of heart disease.

Mittleman notes that chocolate sold in Europe, where the study was conducted, is generally higher in cocoa content than that distributed in the US, so the subjects were likely consuming sweets that contained at least 30% cocoa solids. That would qualify them as dark chocolate in the US, where much of the market is dominated by less flavonoid-rich milk chocolate.

Dr. Linda Van Horn, spokesperson for the American Heart Association and professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University, notes that the results may be discouraging to some chocoholics, especially since previous studies found that daily chocolate consumption was linked to a lower risk of heart disease. She points out, however, that this study looked only at heart failure, a broader class of chronic heart problems, and not specifically at heart attacks. Still, she says, the message for health conscious chocolate lovers is the same — “you can incorporate something that tastes as good as chocolate in moderation into a heart healthy diet.” Just make sure it’s high in cocoa content.