Just in time for the holidays, new research shows that chocolate consumption may have a beneficial effect on the heart and brain. Previous research has suggested that chocolate is linked with a range of benefits, from lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke to improving insulin sensitivity.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge conducted a meta-analysis (analysis of data from several clinical trials) to evaluate the relationship between the consumption of chocolate and the risk of cardiometabolic conditions in general, as well as the risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, and heart failure. A total of seven studies with roughly 114,000 participants, mostly white, were involved in the research. The investigators did not differentiate between dark and milk chocolate, and chocolate in any form (such as chocolate bars, drinks, confections, and nutritional supplements) was included. Frequency of chocolate consumption in the studies ranged from none to more than once a day.
Five of the seven studies showed a significant inverse association between chocolate consumption and cardiovascular disease. Compared with the lowest levels of chocolate consumption, the highest levels of consumption were associated with a 37% reduction in the risk cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduction in the risk of stroke. There was no association between chocolate consumption and heart failure risk and no association in women between chocolate consumption and the incidence of diabetes.
Lead study author Adriana Buitrago-Lopez, RN, and colleagues noted that “Although overconsumption can have harmful effects, the existing studies generally agree on a potential beneficial association of chocolate consumption with a lower risk of cardiometabolic disorders. Our findings confirm this, and we found that higher levels of chocolate consumption might be associated with a one-third reduction in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.”
The researchers suspect that the beneficial effects of chocolate are due to both the presence of polyphenols (powerful plant-based antioxidants) in cocoa products, as well as the role of chocolate in producing nitric acid, a compound that helps widen blood vessels.
In spite of this evidence of the beneficial effects of chocolate, the authors note that the findings must be interpreted with caution because many of the commercially available chocolate products are high in calories in fat and could themselves cause weight gain, a risk factor in Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They additionally suggest that further study is necessary to confirm the beneficial effects of chocolate on cardiometabolic conditions.
For more information about the study, read the articles “The Final Word on Chocolate Intake and Benefits to the Heart and Brain” or “Eating Chocolate Regularly Could Cut Cardiovascular Risk by One Third” or see the study in the journal BMJ. And for more information about ways to improve your heart health, click here.