Chocolate to Fight Diabetes?

For people with diabetes — and many people without it — the holiday season is the most difficult time of year to balance healthy eating with social pressures, such as holiday parties and get-togethers that often feature sweet and fattening treats. Here at DiabetesSelfManagement.com, we’ve written about different strategies for “getting through” the holidays, including a 2011 blog entry by Amy Campbell on food strategies for people with diabetes. But according to a growing body of research, there’s one holiday treat you possibly shouldn’t be avoiding or minimizing, but instead should be eating regularly: chocolate.

A new study — to be published in the February 2015 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition — shows that in addition to its widely touted cardiovascular benefits, chocolate may help prevent Type 2 diabetes. As an article on the study at DailyRx notes, researchers examined data on 18,235 men that included food questionnaires, indicating the amount and frequency of chocolate consumption. The average age of study participants was 66. During a follow-up period that lasted an average of nine years, 1,123 participants — about 6% — developed diabetes. The researchers found that chocolate consumption, as indicated by the questionnaire, was significantly associated with a reduced risk of developing diabetes in the following nine years. Men who ate between one and three servings of chocolate per month had a 7% lower chance of developing diabetes than those who ate no chocolate. Those who ate chocolate weekly were 14% less likely to develop diabetes, and those who consumed chocolate twice or more per week were 17% less likely to develop the condition.

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This study did not distinguish between different types of chocolate consumed by participants, even though chocolate type may be a large factor when it comes to the food’s beneficial effects. As David Spero noted in a 2012 blog entry on the benefits of chocolate, cacao beans — from which chocolate is derived — contain compounds called flavanoids that are believed to lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of blood clots. However, the amount of cacao in a chocolate bar can range from less than 20% in milk chocolate to as much as 80% in very dark chocolate (and 100% in unsweetened chocolate for baking). All chocolate contains fat, much of which tends to be saturated fat, and it can also be high in sugar, depending on the variety. As Amy Campbell notes in a 2007 blog entry on chocolate, even a very small dark chocolate bar — just 1.3 ounces — contains 190 calories, 12 grams of fat (including 7 grams of saturated fat), and 22 grams of carbohydrate, most of it sugar.

What’s your take on chocolate — are studies that have found health benefits a license to consume the treat liberally, or do the fat and sugar in chocolate warrant caution? Do you enjoy darker, more bittersweet chocolate that has a higher percentage of cacao, or is milk chocolate more to your liking? If you like milk chocolate, have you or would you ever switch to dark chocolate for its health benefits? Have you ever explored ways to incorporate chocolate into your diet without the associated fat and sugar, such as by mixing cocoa powder into foods or drinks? Leave a comment below!