Chocolate eaters may have healthier hearts

Older women who eat more chocolate are less likely to develop heart problems, new study findings report.

Over nearly 10 years, women older than 70 who ate chocolate at least once a week were 35% less likely to be hospitalised or die from heart disease, and nearly 60% less likely to be hospitalised or die from heart failure.

What's nice, study author Dr. Joshua Lewis said, is that women did not have to eat a ton of chocolate to see benefits.

"We would therefore caution against people eating foods with high sugar and fat regularly," said Dr. Lewis, based at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Australia.

Benefits of chocolate

This is not the first study to tout chocolate's potential benefits: in 2008, Italian researchers found that eating dark chocolate regularly may help reduce inflammation.

The previous year, another study showed that foods rich in flavonoids - including dark chocolate and apples and red wine may help shield postmenopausal women from coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Flavonoids are thought to reduce the risk of heart disease by helping to increase nitric oxide.

To investigate further, the authors reviewed data collected from 1216 older women, who estimated how often they ate chocolate, and the amount. One serving was equivalent to the amount of cocoa in 1 cup of hot cocoa. The authors tracked the women for almost a decade, noting who was hospitalised or died from heart disease.

Servings of chocolate

Overall, 579 women (48%) ate less than one serving per week, 435 (36%) at one to six servings per week, and 202 (17%) had at least seven servings per week, the authors reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Out of a total of 290 atherosclerotic vascular disease events, 158 (27%) occurred in the women who rarely ate chocolate, vs. 90 (21%) in women who ate chocolate once a week and 42 (21%) in those who ate it daily.

Breaking the cohort up into two groups - less than once a week or at least once a week - showed the more-frequent chocolate eaters had an adjusted hazard ratio of 0.76 for ischemic heart disease, 0.41 for heart failure events, and 0.77 for carotid atherosclerotic plaques.

Given the growing body of evidence suggesting the benefits of chocolate, the next step should be a large clinical trial that vigorously tests chocolate's benefits, Dr. Lewis said.

Dr. Brian Buijsse at the German Institute of Human Nutrition, who did not participate in the study, agreed that more research is needed, in part because other factors in the current study may explain its results. For instance, he said in an e-mail, elderly women with early signs of heart disease may have reduced their chocolate intake, perhaps because their doctors told them to adopt a healthy diet.

"For now, I would say that if people want to eat chocolate to improve their health, they should keep it to low amounts and replace it for other energy-dense snacks," Dr. Buijsse said.

(Reuters Health, Alison McCook, November 2010)

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