Heart Health Program & Heart Problems | Jon Barron's Blog

The Good, the Bad, the Chocolate

Dark Chocolate Reduces Risk of Stroke

Ohhh, how we love our chocolate. Little kids, big kids, adults. Chocolate is king — usually considered the ultimate dietary addiction…and sin. But is it?

A new study from the Santa Lucia Foundation in Rome, Italy, has found that mice will tolerate electric shocks to get a fix of chocolate. The scientists in the study took a pool of mice and divided them into two groups. One group got fed well, and the other was deprived food until the mice lost considerable weight. After a while, the scientists started feeding the deprived group again, until they recovered normal weight. But apparently, the deprivation left a mark. The researchers put chocolate at the end of a maze. To get to it, the mice had to endure a mild shock. The mice who had always been fed well stayed away from the chocolate, but the formerly hungry critters put up with the shock in exchange for the treat.

How do the results translate to humans? Perhaps chocolate cravings really do come from some primeval need to soothe memories of deprivation and if so, “knowing better” simply doesn’t hold enough sway to discourage the addicted. But if you count yourself among those who, like the mice, simply can’t say “no” in spite of consequences, there is a silver lining. A new study has found that eating dark chocolate inhibits the risk of having a stroke or dying from one. (Isn’t it heartwarming when one of these rare studies comes along that touts a benefit associated with a formerly forbidden treat?)

The study, from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, reviewed three studies examining the correlation between chocolate and strokes. One of the studies, involving 44,489 people, found that those who enjoyed one serving of dark chocolate a week had a 22 percent lower risk of stroke compared to those who abstained. Another study found that those who ate 50 grams (about two ounces) of chocolate a week were 46 percent less likely to die after having a stroke than those who didn’t eat chocolate at all.

Some spoilsport experts don’t make much of the findings. For instance, Dr. Patrick Lyden, who chairs the Neurology Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said the findings were probably a “statistical fluke” because the amount of chocolate was so small. And Dr. David Katz of the Yale University School of Medicine said, “This [study] does not establish cause and effect. It might simply be that, for example, people who enjoy life have a lower risk of stroke and are more prone to eat chocolate.” Others point to the high amount of saturated fat in chocolate, and caution that it isn’t a health food item.

But others have a far sunnier view, noting that dark chocolate, which is high in cocoa content, is one of the richest sources of flavonoids. According to Keith-Thomas Ayoob, who directs the nutrition clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, “There are a few studies that indicate that even small amounts of dark chocolate can improve blood flow and reduce blood pressure.” A 2006 study, for instance, found that small amounts of chocolate daily helped pre-hypertensive subjects to lower their blood pressure. Another study published in 2006 found, after following 500 men for 15 years, that those over age 65 who had been eating chocolate regularly reduced their risk of dying from heart disease by half, no matter their diet. And a 2009 study in the Journal of Internal Medicine concluded that those heart attack survivors who ate chocolate twice weekly were less likely to have a second heart attack. Dr. Ayoob attributes the cardiovascular benefits of chocolate to the fact that it “keeps your bad cholesterol from misbehaving and causing plaque build-up [in the arteries].”

The director of the current study, Dr. Gustavo Saposnik, wants to do a follow-up to investigate how different types and amounts of chocolate fare in promoting health. He says, “In years past, the message was that chocolate consumption might be associated with higher LDL [bad] cholesterol or perhaps higher incidence of cardiovascular disease. Today, we know that all chocolates are not the same.”

And that may be the key to whether chocolate benefits or harms you. If you’re going to eat chocolate, nearly all the researchers agree that dark is best. You also will do far better to use only organic, and even better, avoid the added fat by using pure cacao or cocoa powder. In fact, pure cacao has a far higher antioxidant content than green tea, red wine, or even dark chocolate. So for now, until and unless the next report comes out debunking all this good news about chocolate, enjoy!


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