Sweet news about those chocolate cravings: People who eat moderate amounts regularly are thinner than those who eat chocolate less often.
The new research involved 1,018 healthy men and women, who exercised on average 3.6 times a week and had a balanced, nutritious diet. The body mass index of those who ate chocolate five times a week was 1 point lower than people who did not eat it regularly. Body mass index (BMI) is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.
"I was pretty happy with this news myself," says lead author Beatrice Golomb, associate professor of medicine at the University of California-San Diego. "Findings show the composition of calories, not just the number of them, matters for determining ultimate weight."
One point on the BMI scale "is not insignificant," Golomb says; 1 point translates to 5 fewer pounds for someone 5 feet tall, 7 pounds for someone 5-foot-10. Findings were published Monday in Archives of Internal Medicine.
The study was observational, meaning it analyzed data based on how much chocolate people said they ate, rather than a controlled trial in which some people are given chocolate and compared with others who did not get chocolate.
Chocolate should preferably be consumed as dark chocolate, as it contains more of the beneficial flavonoids, as well as less sugar.
Past research has found that dark chocolate can be beneficial for the heart, says physician Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women's health and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. One study of more than 100,000 people found that those who ate dark chocolate regularly reduced their relative risk of heart disease by a third. Golomb's study did not specify the type of chocolate. Neither study received funding from chocolate makers.
Cocoa is rich in antioxidants called flavenoids, which help fight inflammation, lower blood pressure and improve overall vascular function.
The antioxidants also affect metabolism and improve insulin sensitivity, Golomb says. Insulin resistance contributes to hypertension and obesity. "The chocolate provided better metabolism for all calories, not just the chocolate calories."
At a time when 66% of U.S. adults are overweight or obese, the results need to be regarded with some caution, experts acknowledge.
"Before you start to eat a chocolate bar a day to keep the doctor away, remember a chocolate bar can contain over 200 calories, which mostly come from saturated fats and sugar," says Nancy Copperman, a registered dietitian and director of public health initiatives at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y.
She advises limiting chocolate to a 1-oz. portion of dark chocolate a day, or adding cocoa powder to your food or coffee just once a day.