Eat chocolate, stay lean - read it to believe it

Anyone that knows me at all knows that I have a love affair with chocolate. So I had to share this tidbit of good news about new potential health benefits of chocolate.

We’ve been hearing for some time that chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, is good for us and the antioxidant properties of chocolate have been linked favorably with insulin sensitivity, blood pressure and LDL cholesterol levels.  News this week focused on the association between chocolate and body mass index (a ratio of body weight to height used to estimate body fat).

In the study published by Golomb from the University of California San Diego, they asked a simple question to approximately 1000 men and women: “How many times a week do you consume chocolate?” The individuals that consumed chocolate more frequently had consistently lower BMIs. And this relationship was maintained even when factors such as age, sex, activity levels, calorie and saturated fat consumption, and mood were factored in.
What’s interesting and promising about these new findings is that although the individuals that ate chocolate more often also took in more calories, this did not translate to a higher BMI. This muddies the water of the long held belief that calories in equal calories out.  Rather, the quality of the calories makes a difference and the growing evidence for this in the scientific literature is becoming hard to ignore.  (Important to keep in mind is that the chocolate consumption, calorie intake and the amount of exercise done by these individuals was all self-reported. There is some inherent error in this approach and future studies assessing the effects of chocolate on body mass will have to be done in a more controlled manner.  But the overall findings of this study are in agreement with previous findings regarding the cardiovascular and metabolic benefits associated with chocolate consumption.)
The health benefits of chocolate likely come from polyphenols which have been shown to have antioxidant properties. One particular polyphenol, epicatechin, also found in red wine, green tea, apples, and in high concentrations in dark chocolate, has become the leading candidate. A recent study in animals demonstrated that epicatechin derived from cocoa results in increased muscle performance, increased lean muscle mass, and increased numbers of mitochondria – the powerhouse of cells responsible for utilizing energy. All of these adaptations could translate to greater energy utilization and efficiency in our muscles – similar to the benefits of exercise. In addition, polyphenols in chocolate may alter the digestion and absorption of fat. Polyphenols from cocoa have been shown to inhibit an enzyme in the gut, pancreatic lipase, responsible for digesting fat. As a result, the fat present in chocolate may not be absorbed by the body, essentially allowing an individual to stay lean.
As a scientist, I am sufficiently skeptical of any magic ingredient in food that, taken in isolation, could be the next great drug or treatment for cardiovascular or metabolic disease.  The most reliable and best studied method of delivering epicatechin in humans is in the form of dark chocolate. Previously, this was considered impractical for the treatment of disease over a long period given the additional risks associated with the high calorie content of chocolate. If epicatechin could be delivered to patients in the form of dark chocolate, without the associated risk of increased BMI - that is something worth getting excited about. And I can always get excited about chocolate.

So enjoy those chocolate eggs and bunnies a bit more this year. But remember to make them dark chocolate.


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