Reality check: Can eating 6 servings of chocolate a week be good for your heart health?

Eating chocolate may significantly decrease the risk of developing a common and dangerous type of irregular heartbeat in both men and women, a new study claims.

In fact, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that the more chocolate one eats, the less of a chance they have at developing atrial fibrillation (AF).

“Our study adds to the accumulating evidence on the health benefits of moderate chocolate intake and highlights the importance of behavioural factors for potentially lowering the risk of arrhythmias,” Elizabeth Mostofsky, lead author of the study, said in a statement.

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The study looked at over 55,500 men and women who participated in the Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Study over a 13.5 year period. During the time of recruitment, researchers measured the body mass index, blood pressure and cholesterol of the participants. Researchers then identified 3,346 patients who had AF using the Danish National Patient Register.

What they found was that compared to those who ate a one-ounce serving of chocolate less than once a month, those who ate one to three servings per month had a 10 per cent lower rate of AF. Those who ate one serving per week had a 17 per cent lower rater while those who ate two to six servings per week had a 20 per cent lower rate.

However, researchers say the benefit levelled off when participants ate one or more servings per day having a 16 per cent lower rate of AF.

“Despite the fact that most of the chocolate consumed by the study participants likely had relatively low concentrations of potentially protective ingredients, we still observed significant associations between eating chocolate and a lower risk of AF – suggesting that even small amounts of cocoa consumption can have a positive health impact,” Mostofsky said.

This isn’t your excuse to head to the convenience store to raid the candy aisle, though.

”Eating excessive amounts of chocolate is not recommended because many chocolate products are high in calories from sugar and fat and could lead to weight gain and other metabolic problems. But moderate intake of chocolate with high cocoa content may be a healthy choice,” she said.

While this study may seem promising to chocoholics, dietitian Andrea Holwegner (who coins herself to be the Chocoholic Nutritionist) says the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

“Of course anything that is a bit counter-intuitive is always appealing,” she says. “There is some research out there already that shows that there are these beneficial flavonoids that are found in chocolate, particularly dark chocolate… But we’ve known for quite some time now that flavonoids – these phytonutrients that can be found in cocoa – can be helpful.”

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These flavonoids – which can also be found in red wine, Holwegner says – are known to have antioxidant effects that protect the body from damage. They also decrease the “stickiness” of the blood which helps to prevent blood clotting, as well as help blood vessel walls relax which helps with overall heart health.

Other studies have also linked dark chocolate and flavonoids to lowering blood pressure, managing cholesterol levels and improving overall hearth health.

“With this particular study, we have to be careful that we’re not going around and telling everybody they should be eating chocolate every day to help with their heart health because then I think that would be misleading,” Holwegner says, who was not associated with the study.

But it’s important to note that these benefits are tied to dark chocolate with a high cocoa content of 70 per cent or more, Holwegner says. So if you’re consuming a lot of milk chocolate products, which are loaded with sugar content, you’re doing your body and health a disservice.

The medical community has already warned that too much sugar is tied to weight gain, nutritional deficiencies, high blood pressure and even risk of cavities.

“I think at the end of the day we have to be looking at your whole diet in context,” Holwegner says.

“It’s difficult with any nutrition research to take a large sample study and but there are so many variables that are also changing in one’s diet and lifestyle… So what we’re seeing here is a correlation that chocolate eaters had this benefit in reducing AF but we don’t know much about the rest of their diet and the rest of their lifestyle patterns. So we have to be careful about oversimplifying the results and leaping to conclusions.”

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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