Chocolate: Sweet Benefits for Both Your Heart and Your Brain

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While other factors could explain the results, a new study has found that those who eat more than two chocolate bars per week are healthier

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If you are a chocoholic, you will want to cheer about the results of a new study pointing to the possibly sweet benefits of chocolate on the heart and brain.

Past studies have suggested that chocolate may protect against certain risk factors for stroke and heart disease, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, but never has a large-scale study looked at whether chocolate can really reduce the risk for these diseases. Oscar H. Franco, M.D., Ph.D., with the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, and other researchers analyzed the findings of seven research studies involving nearly 115,000 people. They compared the heart and brain health of those who reported eating low levels of chocolate (less than two bars a week) with those who ate high levels of chocolate (more than two bars a week).

All of the studies that were analyzed reported how much chocolate people ate, but there was no distinction between dark chocolate and milk chocolate. The source of chocolate was not a consideration either so chocolate candy, chocolate cookies, chocolate milk, for example, all counted as chocolate intake. The combined studies followed the participants anywhere from eight to 16 years.

The result? Those who ate the most chocolate had a 37 percent reduction in risk for cardiovascular disease and were 29 percent less likely to suffer a stroke. In addition, there was no association between eating chocolate and the risk of heart failure and no association with the incidence of diabetes.

The potential protective effects of chocolate are attributed to compounds called polyphenols, a type of antioxidant that increases the body's production of nitric oxide, a chemical that helps the body's circulatory system. The production of more nitric oxide may lead to better blood pressure and blood flow, and also have beneficial effects on insulin resistance and blood lipids.

Before all you chocoholics get too excited, there is a downside. Chocolate candies, chocolate cookies, chocolate cakes, and chocolate drinks are high in fat, sugar, and calories. Too much of them can cause weight gain, which can lead to just the thing moderate consumption may prevent -- heart disease. A little may be good, but more is not better! Dr. Franco advises chocolate lovers to eat small amounts of chocolate on a regular basis rather than binging.

The study does not prove that chocolate lowers the risk of heart disease. It could be that the study participants shared some other characteristics that explain their heart and brain health. More research is needed on how chocolate may benefit the heart.

The findings were presented on August 29, 2011, at Europe's largest medical meeting, the European Society of Cardiology Congress, and published simultaneously online in the British Medical Journal at www.bmj.com.

Image: REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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Beth Fontenot is a registered dietitian and a licensed dietitian/nutritionist. She serves on the Louisiana Board of Examiners in Dietetics and Nutrition and writes for TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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