Eating Chocolate at Least Once a Week May Prevent Heart Problems

Eating chocolate at least once a week has been linked to better heart health in a study. Its co-author said the findings suggest the food could be good for our blood vessels.

To explore the link between eating chocolate and coronary artery disease (CAD), or the build-up of plaque in these vessels that can lead to a heart attack, researchers looked for existing studies relevant to the question. They published their review in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

The team observed six studies with 336,289 participants in total: 266,264 from the U.S., 68,809 from Sweden, and 1,216 from Australia. On average, the researchers who conducted the respective studies followed up with their participants after almost nine years.

Of the total participants, 14,043 had CAD, 4,667 had experienced heart attacks, 2735 strokes, and 332 heart failure.

Those who ate chocolate more than once a week or 3.5 times a month had a lower risk of CAD than those who never ate chocolate or did so less than once each week.

The findings mirrored those of a separate analysis, where the highest and lowest intake of chocolate were compared, that also linked eating chocolate with a lower risk of CAD, the authors said. But the team argued their approach was better.

Eating chocolate may protect the heart thanks to several nutrients, the team said. What are known as flavanols, for instance, have been previously linked to certain benefits.

"Overall, the benefits of nutrients in chocolate appear promising and chocolate consumption at least once a week may be beneficial for CAD prevention," they wrote.

But the team said it is important to remember the potential "unfavorable effects" of the extra calories from fat, milk and sugar in certain chocolate products.

"Dark chocolate consumption at least once a week (e.g. as a substitute for sugared candy) with overall caloric intake tracking is probably safe," they said.

The study was limited, the team said, because it wasn't able to show what types of chocolates influenced the link. Also, most of the participants were from the U.S. or Europe, so certain lifestyle factors may have impacted the results.

Long-term, double-blind, randomized controlled testing should be conducted in the future to find an explanation for the link, they said.

Co-author Dr. Chayakrit Krittanawong of Baylor College of Medicine said in a statement: "Our study suggests that chocolate helps keep the heart's blood vessels healthy."

He said: "In the past, clinical studies have shown that chocolate is beneficial for both blood pressure and the lining of blood vessels.

"I wanted to see if it affects the blood vessels supplying the heart (the coronary arteries) or not. And if it does, is it beneficial or harmful?"

Dr. Krittanawong more research is needed to see what type of chocolate may be beneficial, and said readers shouldn't be tempted to over-indulge.

"Moderate amounts of chocolate seem to protect the coronary arteries but it's likely that large quantities do not," he said, and those who are obese or have diabetes should be particularly careful.

Victoria Taylor, senior dietitian at the U.K.-based charity the British Heart Foundation, told Newsweek: "Although this review suggests that chocolate can keeps the heart's blood vessels healthy, it does have its limitations. It didn't consider what else participants were eating or the risk factors for heart and circulatory diseases that people might have had, so the results aren't conclusive enough for us to recommend eating chocolate for health reasons."

Taylor said it is already known that there may be beneficial compounds found in cocoa, but the products most commonly bought in countries such as the U.K. usually contain very little cocoa.

"All chocolate is high in calories because of its fat and sugar content and eating too much of it can lead to weight gain, which isn't good for our heart and circulatory health," she said.

Taylor said: "We all love chocolate and, although it's fine to treat yourself every now and again, no single foods or nutrients are more important than an overall balanced diet.

"Plus, the antioxidants in cocoa that are thought to be behind the benefits can also be found in other foods that don't come with added saturated fat and sugar, such as tea, berries and nuts."

chocolate, stock, getty
A stock image shows a woman eating chocolate. Scientists have reviewed existing studies to explore the relationship between heart health and chocolate. Getty