Daily chocolate dose may fend off heart disease – but don’t bet your life on it

The Mayans are said to have described cacao as the food of the gods but had short enough life expectancies that they probably never thought of it as beneficial to their health. However, a new study suggests that people who eat as much as 100g of chocolate per day – or around two bars – may be less likely to die from heart disease.

Unfortunately, anyone thinking this gives them carte blanche to indulge in divine decadence is being a tad premature.

The study, in the journal Heart, which is part of the British Medical Journal group, does show that people who eat a substantial amount of chocolate every day have lower cardiovascular disease and stroke risk. But there are some big questions that are hard for the researchers to answer, such as whether it is the chocolate that is protecting people from heart attacks and strokes or other factors such as age and level of exercise.

The study was based on questionnaires filled out by 21 000 adults in Norfolk in the 1990s, who were asked how many chocolate squares, bars or hot chocolates they consumed each day. The respondents were followed up for 12 years to see whether they developed any heart complaints, while the researchers also undertook a review of other major studies looking at the links between heart health and chocolate.

One in five of those questioned said they never ate chocolate. Those who did admitted to between 7g and 100g a day. The chocolate eaters tended to be younger and had a lower BMI than those who said they did not touch it. They had lower blood pressure, fewer instances of diabetes, did more exercise and confessed to eating more calories in a diet with more fat and carbohydrates and less protein and alcohol than the rest. Compared to those who said they ate no chocolate, they had an 11% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and 25% lower risk of premature death.

Milk chocolate appeared to be just as good as dark chocolate, said the researchers, who pondered whether the calcium in the milk may be beneficial as well as the flavonoids in the chocolate.

But they admit the findings may have to be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, it is possible that those who are eating least chocolate are those who are being careful because they already know they have a heart problem.

The take-home message is probably just that most chocolate eaters have little to worry about – and not that we should all go out and buy multipacks. Dr Tim Chico, a consultant cardiologist in Sheffield, said: “The message I take from this study is that if you are a healthy weight, then eating chocolate (in moderation) does not detectably increase risk of heart disease and may even have some benefit. I would not advise my patients to increase their chocolate intake based on this research, particularly if they are overweight.” – By Sarah Boseley

Image – AFP