Eating chocolate linked to 'lower heart disease and stroke risk'

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dark chocolateImage source, Thinkstock

Eating a moderate amount of chocolate a day has been linked to a lowered risk of heart disease and stroke.

University of Aberdeen experts looked at the eating habits of more than 20,000 middle-aged and elderly people.

They concluded that compared to those who ate no chocolate, those who ate up to a small bar a day had an 11% lesser risk of cardiovascular disease and a 23% reduced risk of stroke.

But the researchers warned this did not prove chocolate makes you healthier.

The findings, published in the British Medical Journal's "Heart" magazine, were based on data from the EPIC-Norfolk study which is tracking the impact of diet on the long-term health of 25,000 men and women in Norfolk.

The Aberdeen researchers also carried out a review of previously published evidence on the links between chocolate and cardiovascular disease.

Risk profile

Prof Phyo Myint, of the School of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Aberdeen, told BBC Scotland: "This is the observational study therefore we can't imply the cause and effect relationship.

"We can't say for sure it could cause these benefits.

"What we observed is the association between the habitual consumption of chocolate, to a maximum of 100g a day, linked to a reduction in incidence of stroke and cardiovascular disease over longer-term follow-up, in this study 12 years."

About one in five (20%) participants said they did not eat any chocolate, but among the others, daily consumption averaged 7g, with some eating up to 100g.

Those who ate the most also tended to be younger, have a lower weight, waist to hip ratio, and blood pressure, and were less likely to have diabetes and more likely to carry out regular physical activity - all of which add up to a favourable cardiovascular disease risk profile, researchers said.

Eating more chocolate was also associated with higher energy intake and a diet containing more fat and carbohydrates and less protein and alcohol.

Calculations carried out by the researchers suggested that compared with those who ate no chocolate higher intake was linked to an 11% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 25% lower risk of associated death.

Image source, Thinkstock

It was also associated with a 9% lower risk of hospital admission or death as a result of coronary heart disease, after taking account of dietary factors.

The highest chocolate intake was similarly associated with a 23% lower risk of stroke, even after taking account of other potential risk factors.

The study authors also pointed out that dark chocolate is usually said to have more beneficial effects than milk chocolate, but milk chocolate was more frequently eaten by the Norfolk participants.

'Protective effect'

Prof Myint said chocolate was rich in fat and carbohydrate so it was important to burn off the calories from eating it.

He said: "The group that showed a benefit consumed 16g to 100g a day of chocolate. Most of them probably consumed around 100g a week rather than 100g a day and the results we see are group effects so we can't say eating 100g a day will do good."

Dr Tim Chico, reader in cardiovascular medicine and consultant cardiologist at the University of Sheffield, said: "This study adds to the evidence that people who consume chocolate tend to have lower rates of cardiovascular disease, although such studies cannot say whether the chocolate is the cause of this protective effect.

"There is evidence from other studies that have randomised people to be given chocolate that this can have effects that might reduce cardiovascular disease, such as a reduction in blood pressure.

"These studies taken together suggest that there might be some health benefits from eating chocolate. However, it is also clear that chocolate has the potential to increase weight, which is unequivocally bad for cardiovascular health.

He added: "The message I take from this study is that if you are a healthy weight, then eating chocolate (in moderation) does not detectibly increase risk of heart disease and may even have some benefit. I would not advise my patients to increase their chocolate intake based on this research, particularly if they are overweight."

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