Chocolate, like any other candy, makes you fat. That's such a basic and well-known fact that it's easily taken for granted... but it could be wrong. New research reveals that people who regularly eat chocolate are thinner than those who don't.
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That's the finding of UC San Diego researchers Beatrice Golomb, Sabrina Koperski, and Halbert White, who reported their findings in today's issue of Archives of Internal Medicine. Their findings go against everything we think we know about chocolate — in part, because of the way chocolate has typically been consumed since Europeans first came into contact with it.
While indigenous Americans such as the Maya and Aztecs didn't add much to the cacao plant when harvesting it as chocolate, Europeans added sugar and milk - two items unknown in the Americas - to overcome the food's natural bitter taste and make it palatable. In doing so, what had been a staple part of the American diet for 2,500 years became a dessert for Europeans. Sweet chocolate — which includes both the dark and white varieties — has been seen as a fattening dessert ever since.
The thing is, there were good reasons why the original chocolate crop cacao had become such a vital part of diets of various ancient American cultures. It's connected with a bunch of potential health benefits — primarily as an antioxidant, thanks to the presence of a substance known as epicatechin. Chocolate's status as an antioxidant means it can help work against certain molecular chain reactions in the body's cells that, if unchecked, can cause cell decay and death.
Chocolate is also linked to modest reductions in blood pressure, insulin sensitivity, cholesterol, and other key metabolic functions. The problem with all this, naturally enough, is whether these potential health benefits are useful enough to make up for the weight gain associated with eating even modest amounts of chocolate. That's why this new study is so intriguing — that association between chocolate and weight gain may be a popular one, but it isn't necessarily a scientific one.
The UC San Diego researchers realized that body mass index (BMI) is affected by metabolism just as much as blood pressure or cholesterol levels are. As such, it was possible that chocolate consumption could help reduce the deposition of fat, effectively canceling out the very calories added when eating the chocolate in the first place. It may sound a bit like the logical equivalent of Möbius strip, or possibly a bit of nutritional ouroboros, but their data suggests that this is exactly what is happening.
The researchers enlisted 1018 men and women between the ages of 20 and 85 from the San Diego area, none of whom had any known history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or high cholesterol. They were asked how many times a week they consumed chocolate and their BMI was measured. They were also asked to list the frequency of other foods they ate and how often they exercised.
All the raw data suggested that the chocolate eaters should have the heftier BMI. They showed higher calorie intake, ate more saturated fats, and they didn't exercise any more than their non-chocolate counterparts. And yet, no matter how the researchers sliced or adjusted the data to account for potentially confounding variables like age, gender, physical activity, or anything else, chocolate consumption was always linked to a lower BMI. The people who ate chocolate were thinner than those who didn't.
The researchers write that it probably isn't simply the amount of calories that determines weight, but the character of those calories. We think of chocolate as full of empty calories, but they seem to have a serious impact on our bodies' metabolic functions, and those can be enough to offset the addition of all those calories in the first place.
That said, it should definitely be pointed out that this is hardly a universal law. The researchers are quick to point out that this effect may not hold true for all types of chocolate, all the ways in which people eat chocolate, or indeed all chocolate eaters. Not everyone is guaranteed these health benefits from eating chocolates, and for some it may really just be a quick road to weight gain.
Still, as lead researcher Beatrice Golomb puts it, this is "good news – both for those who have a regular chocolate habit, and those who may wish to start one." You know, I've never been less happy about the fact that I really don't like chocolate that much. Now, when scientists come out with the health benefits of Sweet Tarts, then we'll be talking.