Does Frequent Chocolate Consumption Lower Your Risk of Coronary Heart Disease?

According to a new study published online ahead of print in the journal Clinical Nutrition… quite possibly yes. The research team leading the study found that adults who consumed at least five servings of chocolate per week had 57% lower odds of developing coronary heart disease (CHD) compared to those who consumed no candy at all. (Djousse L, et al. Chocolate consumption is inversely associated with prevalent coronary heart disease: The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Family Heart Study. Clin Nutr. 2010 Sep 19. [Epub ahead of print])

Now I’m sure we’ve all seen the screaming headlines in supermarket tabloids that declare, “Chocolate Cures Everything!” And while for some people chocolate might indeed seem like a cure for a broken heart, stress or a craving for sweet-tasting food, does it really offer measurable health benefits?

Well, according to the new study’s authors, it turns out that a number of human subject studies conducted over the past decade have actually demonstrated notable health benefits associated with high chocolate consumption ranging from lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels, and lower cardiovascular disease risk in general.

In the Clinical Nutrition study, the Harvard Medical School-based lead investigator examined the medical records of nearly 5,000 adults who participated in broader heart health study known as the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) Family Heart Study. In particular, the researchers looked at food consumption surveys completed by study participants that highlighted chocolate consumption among other foods. They then compared the incidence of coronary heart disease among the study participants at various levels of chocolate consumption (none, 1-3 times/month, 1-4 times/week and 5+ times/week).

The study team’s results showed that people who consumed chocolate 1-3 times a month had about the same odds ratio of developing CHD as non-chocolate consumers, while the group that consumed chocolate 1-4 times/week had 26% lower risk of developing CHD, and the group devouring chocolate 5+ times/week showed a 57% lower odds ratio of a CHD diagnosis.

So what’s going on here? How can high chocolate consumption possibly lessen your risk of coronary heart disease? Well, according to the study authors, chocolate (cocoa and dark chocolate in particular), contains high amounts of powerful antioxidant compounds known as polyphenols that are believed to be helpful in reducing the damage done to the human body by molecules known as free radicals.

Free radicals are by-products of the body’s process to utilize oxygen (when cells absorb oxygen, they break off the piece of oxygen they need leaving an unstable oxygen molecule behind — this unstable oxygen molecule is known as a free radical). Free radical damage is believed to be a significant contributing factor in many diseases associated with aging. In addition to free radicals created in the human body through the normal everyday process of absorbing and using energy, free radicals can also be inhaled in massive amounts through cigarette smoke as well as environmental and industrial pollutants.

Generally, in non-smoking adults who consume a diet that includes foods high in antioxidant content (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, tea and red wine to name a few) research evidence shows lower incidence of many types of cardiovascular and respiratory disease. From this study’s results it appears that chocolate can be added to this list.

It should be noted that while the study authors emphasize the value of dark chocolate over milk chocolate in reporting their findings based on previously reported study results, their study participants did not delineate their consumption between the two types of chocolate (and one would presume that most of the study subjects were consuming a fair bit of milk chocolate given that most chocolate candy is milk chocolate-based).

A parting word of caution from the study’s authors though — while chocolate may confer these protective cardiovascular benefits, other forms of candy do not. For example, the investigators evaluated the odds ratio of CHD among people who consumed 5+ servings of non-chocolate candy each week to those who consumed no candy and found the non-chocolate candy group had a 49% HIGHER risk of developing coronary heart disease (as opposed to a 57% LOWER risk among those who consumed chocolate 5+ times/week).

So, if you find yourself craving a sweet-tasting component to your daily diet one would be wise to reach for a chocolate bar instead of a fistful of jelly beans. While chocolate might be a bit messier to eat, your heart will approve of your selection!

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